The Associated Press issued a sharp rebuke on Tuesday to the Justice Department's contention that it was careful and measured in its secret probe of the news agency.
Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, the man who oversaw the investigation into the AP, told the wire service in a letter Tuesday that, contrary to its claims that it had been the victim of a "massive and unprecedented intrusion," the probe had been very targeted. Cole said that the secret subpoenas of phone records were "limited in both time and scope," and that the DOJ had taken every available measure to avoid having to obtain the records.
In his reply, AP CEO Gary Pruitt said Cole's explanation was simply not good enough. "We appreciate the DOJ’s prompt response, but it does not adequately address our concerns," he wrote.
Pruitt wondered how an investigation that targeted up to 100 journalists could be defined as "narrowly drawn." He also said he failed to see how a less narrow investigation would have compromised the DOJ's mission.
In a press conference on Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder—who has recused himself from the investigation—said that the DOJ probe occurred in response to one of the most serious and dangerous national security leaks he had ever seen.
Most observers have pointed to a 2012 story about a foiled Yemeni bomb plot as the likely source of the leak investigation. In his letter, Pruitt pointed out that the AP only published that story after "the government assured us that the national security concerns had passed."
Read the full text of the letter below:
We appreciate the DOJ’s prompt response, but it does not adequately address our concerns. The letter simply restates the law and claims that officials have complied with it. There are three significant concerns:
The scope of the subpoena was overbroad under the law, given that it involved seizing records from a broad range of telephones across AP’s newsgathering operation. More than 100 journalists work in the locations served by those telephones. How can we consider this inquiry to be narrowly drawn?
Rather than talk to us in advance, they seized these phone records in secret, saying that notifying us would compromise their investigation. They offer no explanation of this, however.
Instead they captured the telephone numbers between scores of AP journalists and the many people they talk to in the normal business of gathering news. How would narrowing the scope of the phone records have compromised their investigation?
In their response today, the DOJ says the seized records cover only a portion of April and May of 2012. However, in their original notification to us on May 10, they say they have “received toll records from April and May 2012,” and then list 20 different numbers for AP offices and staff.
Finally, they say this secrecy is important for national security. It is always difficult to respond to that, particularly since they still haven’t told us specifically what they are investigating.
We believe it is related to AP’s May 2012 reporting that the U.S. government had foiled a plot to put a bomb on an airliner to the United States. We held that story until the government assured us that the national security concerns had passed. Indeed, the White House was preparing to publicly announce that the bomb plot had been foiled.
The White House had said there was no credible threat to the American people in May of 2012. The AP story suggested otherwise, and we felt that was important information and the public deserved to know it.