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Journalists push back against Obama administration for seizure of Associated Press records

Attorney General Eric Holder, the nation's top law enforcement official, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 15, 2013, before the House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing on the U.S. Department of Justice. House Judiciary Committee
Attorney General Eric Holder, the nation's top law enforcement official, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 15, 2013, before the House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing on the U.S. Department of Justice. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte,R-Va., wants to know more about the unwarranted targeting of Tea Party and other conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service and the Justice Department's secret seizure of telephone records at The Associated Press.
J. Scott Applewhite, AP

Attorney General Eric Holder testified Wednesday that he was "not a part" of the Justice Department's seizure of Associated Press phone records, while news organizations united in protest of the action, saying the DOJ must act to "mitigate the damage it has caused."

More than 50 major media organizations — ranging from Forbes Inc. to the National Association of Broadcasters, The National Press Club, The New York Times Company, NPR, Inc. and The Washington Post — sent Holder a letter Tuesday protesting the records seizure and calling for action.

"In the 30 years since the department (of justice) issued guidelines governing its subpoena practice as it relates to phone records from journalists, none of us can remember an instance where such an overreaching dragnet for newsgathering materials was deployed by the department, particularly without notice to the affected reporters or an opportunity to seek judicial review," the letter said.

It continued, "The scope of this action calls into question the very integrity of Department of Justice policies toward the press and its ability to balance, on its own, its police powers against the First Amendment rights of the news media and the public's interest in reporting on all manner of government conduct, including matters touching on national security, which lie at the heart of this case."

The letter demanded that the DOJ return the telephone records and destroy all copies, or, "at the very least," segregate the records and prohibit any further use of them. It also requested that the DOJ explain "how government lawyers overreached so egregiously," announce whether the DOJ has any other pending news-related subpoenas, and take other steps to address the situation.

Editorials from USA Today and The New York Times took the Obama administration to task Tuesday, saying it has "failed to offer credible justification" for the action and that "the public is the ultimate loser."

"Who will want to talk to reporters if people fear the feds will learn abut the calls?" the USA Today editorial asked. "Certainly not whistle-blowers who want to remain unidentified. Perhaps not even officials helping reporters understand the events of the day. ... Once an administration walks down this road, it can be tough to pull back. That's the nature of power. Once a line is crossed, the tendency is to cross it again — more aggressively — until a new line is drawn."

"For more than 30 years, the news media and the government have used a well-honed system to balance the government's need to pursue criminals or national security breaches with the media's constitutional right to inform the public," The New York Times said. "This action against The AP, as the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press outlined in a letter to Mr. Holder, 'calls into question the very integrity' of the administration's policy toward the press."

According to The Associated Press, U.S. officials said the DOJ was investigating who may have leaked information about a plot to detonate a bomb on an airplane bound for the U.S. The story, published on on May 8, 2012, reported that the information came "from a covert CIA operation in Yemen."

The Washington Post's editorial said that while the DOJ's "apparent purpose" to find who told The AP about the CIA operation is perhaps understandable for national security reasons, the process it used in seizing the records was inappropriate.

"Federal prosecutors subpoenaed records for 20 separate office, home and cellular phone lines belonging to the AP and its reporters or editors," the Post said. "The subpoenas covered a two-month period in the first half of 2012. Crucially, they did not follow the usual Justice Department policy, which is to give news organizations a chance to negotiate or contest such a subpoena ahead of time."

On Thursday, the Post reported that the CIA did not have national security concerns about the AP publishing the al-Qaeda plot story by the time it ran, but that the CIA requested the news organization hold off publishing the story because "the Obama administration was planning to announce the successful counterterrorism operation that Tuesday."

According to The New York Times, the DOJ is pursuing at least two major press investigations, and while the paper said the DOJ's tactics "will not scare us off, or The AP," they could frighten off sources or contacts "vital to coverage of government."

Holder told NPR reporter Carrie Johnson that he is not sure how many cases of obtaining records of journalists' work he has signed off on.

"I take them very seriously," Holder said. "I know that I have refused to sign a few (and) pushed a few back for modifications."

Holder said Tuesday that he recused himself last year from the AP probe because he wanted to avoid the appearance of a conflict and to "make sure that this investigation was seen as one that was independent."