AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt tells an audience at the National Press Club in Washington on Wednesday that the government’s secret seizure of AP phone records violated the government’s own rules and threatened the ability of reporters to do their work. (SHFWire photo by Robert R. Denton)
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire
WASHINGTON – Gary Pruitt, the Associated Press’ president and CEO, railed against the Department of Justice phone records seizure Wednesday in a speech at the National Press Club.
Pruitt said that the seizure of phone records from AP reporters earlier this year has affected their ability to report. He also accused the DOJ of breaking its own rules regarding subpoenas toward the press.
“These rules date back to the Watergate era and require that any demands ‘be as narrowly drawn as possible.’ They also require news organizations be notified of a subpoena in advance, giving them time to appeal in the courts – unless doing so would substantially impair the integrity of the investigation,” Pruitt said. “In the sweep of AP phone records, the DOJ leadership violated its own rules.”
Hundreds of phone lines were targeted in the subpoena, including a reporter’s individual phone, the AP’s main Washington number and the phones it uses at the House of Representatives press gallery, Pruitt said. He said some of the numbers had not been used recently; one was seven years out of service.
Pruitt said that he sees the DOJ’s actions as a First Amendment issue more than just an AP problem.
“This unprecedented intrusion into AP’s newsgathering records by government officials was so broad, so overreaching and so secretive that it violated the protective zone that the First Amendment provides journalists in the United States,” he said.
Pruitt said journalists need a federal shield law that would help reporters protect sources. And he said the Justice Department needs to strengthen its guidelines before seeking a subpoena, including telling news organizations in advance so they can either negotiate what will be turned over or go to court.
The subpoena was originally part of a leak investigation by the DOJ about the AP’s reporting on a foiled al-Qaida plot to bomb an airplane headed for the U.S. A source gave information to an AP reporter in 2012. The AP held off on publishing the information for two weeks at the government’s request until the wire service could confirm there was no longer a threat to national security, Pruitt said.
The government released information about plot the next day.
Reach reporter Robert R. Denton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-326-9871.