AP head says Justice broke rules by ‘fiat’

Posted Thursday, Jun. 20, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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A pronounced chilling effect followed disclosures last month that the Department of Justice had seized records from 21 phone lines used by Associated Press reporters in a zealous effort to track down AP’s source of information for a terrorism-related 2012 news story.

AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt said in a speech to journalists in Washington Wednesday that some longtime sources now are reluctant to talk to the wire service’s reporters by phone. Other news organization executives have told him of similar problems, Pruitt said.

Anyone who believes in the role of the press in a free society has to take notice. As Pruitt said in his prepared remarks, some officials may love the fact that sources have become more reluctant to divulge information. “But beware a government that loves too much secrecy.”

Pruitt is the former president, CEO and board chairman of the McClatchy Company, parent of the Star-Telegram.

Attorney General Eric Holder has emphasized the seriousness of the leak that lead to the April 2012, story about a foiled plot in Yemen to bomb an airliner bound for the U.S. The disclosure endangered other U.S., Saudi and British intelligence operations and put lives at risk, reports have said.

Pruitt says the Justice Department was heavy-handed in its seizure of AP phone records and violated even its own internal rules.

Key to that allegation is that the records seizure took place without prior notice. Such notice, required of the Justice Department unless it would endanger its investigative effort, would have allowed AP to challenge the subpoena in court.

Since the records were in the possession of a third-party service provider, there was no danger that they would be altered before a court could rule. The Justice Department had disclosed that it was conducting an investigation, so AP’s source was aware of it.

“We want judicial oversight. We need to ensure that proper checks and balances are maintained,” Pruitt said. “Denying constitutional rights by executive fiat is not how this government should work.”

Judicial oversight seems the least that could be asked in a case like this. President Barack Obama has instructed Holder to examine his department’s operations and report on any needed policy changes by July 12.

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