On Thursday, the Columbia Journalism Review reported on the results of a Freedom of Information Act request for documents related to the Obama Justice Department’s attempts to crack down on leaks to reporters which reveal that the Obama administration’s actions against the press “were broader than previously known.”
The report — which begins by warning against the threat the Trump administration poses to the freedom of the press — presents an alarming picture of the previous administration’s efforts to surveil the press and track down sources of leaks (h/t Ed Morrissey).
CJR’s report, authored by Ramya Krishnan and Trevor Timm, is based on a highly redacted 59-page report by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility completed Dec. 9, 2014 and obtained via FOIA request by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and the Freedom of the Press Foundation (where Krishnan and Timm work, respectively).
“In 2013, the Justice Department launched a brazen attack on press freedom, issuing sweeping subpoenas for the phone records of the Associated Press and several of its reporters and editors as part of a leak investigation,” the authors report. While those subpoenas have long been understood as “a massive intrusion into newsgathering operations,” they note, the recently unearthed 2014 report reveals that the subpoenas targeting AP “told only part of the story.”
The Office of Professional Responsibility’s report on the Obama Justice Department’s subpoenas of AP phone records reveals that “the DOJ’s actions against the AP were broader than previously known, and that the DOJ considered subpoenaing the phone records of other news organizations, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, and ABC News,” the authors explain. The report also reveals “how narrowly the DOJ interprets the Media Guidelines, the agency’s internal rules for obtaining reporters’ data.”
The Obama DOJ’s targeting of the AP came in response to May 2012 reports containing classified information about the CIA’s thwarting of a Yemen-based bomb plot. In early 2013, the Deputy Attorney General approved requests by the DOJ to subpoena AP telephone records in an attempt to uncover reporters’ sources, prompting AP to complain that the DOJ had violated the Media Guidelines about how narrowly subpoenas for reporters’ phone records should be drawn.
Though the DOJ defended its broad subpoenas, the Office of Professional Responsibility’s report reveals that ethics lawyers were troubled enough by the sequence of events to look into it and found that the department’s handling of the investigation was more expansive than previously known. CJR reports:
The report, which was submitted to then–Attorney General Eric Holder in 2013, reveals that the leak probe was broader than previously understood. It reveals, for example, that, while the Justice Department obtained telephone toll records for 21 telephone numbers, the agency in fact issued “30 subpoenas to obtain telephone toll records for 30 unique telephone numbers.” The report reveals that those 30 subpoenas were intended to target seven reporters and editors, and covered a period of six weeks spanning April 1, 2012 to May 10, 2012.
The report also shows that, at least at one stage of their investigation, Justice Department attorneys considered subpoenaing the records of The Washington Post, The New York Times, and ABC News. What’s more, the report strongly suggests that the attorneys went so far as to obtain “telephone numbers and other contact information” for reporters and editors at those organizations who had worked on articles about the Yemen bomb plot. The report records, however, that the attorneys ultimately decided against issuing additional subpoenas.
The Office of Professional Responsibility ultimately attempts to downplay the DOJ’s actions in ways Krishnan and Timm describe as “disturbing.” “Disturbingly, the report does not come close to explaining why the subpoenas targeted the trunk lines of major AP offices—lines which could potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the AP’s newsgathering activities,” they stress. Instead, the report simply concludes by arguing that even though the DOJ targeted phone records that turned out to be unrelated to their investigation, “at the time when the subpoenas were sought, investigators had a factual basis for believing that those telephone numbers did relate to [AP] personnel.”