NEW YORK –- When Attorney General Eric Holder took reporters' questions Tuesday afternoon, several asked about the Justice Department’s sweeping seizure of Associated Press phone records, a move condemned by prominent journalists, media outlets and civil liberties advocates.
New York Times reporter Charlie Savage had a different question for Holder, who had just announced he'd recused himself from the AP leak investigation. "Are you also recused from the Stuxnet investigation out of Maryland?" Savage asked. Holder declined to comment, as the Times noted in Tuesday's story. The DOJ also didn't comment on that other leak investigation to the Times for a Monday story on the AP seizure. Times reporters had asked "whether a similar step was taken" in the secretly obtaining journalists records in the Maryland investigation.
The Times has reason to be concerned about whether investigators are using similar tactics. The Maryland case is believed to be focused on Times chief Washington correspondent David Sanger’s reporting on how the U.S. and Israel helped derail Iran’s nuclear program through cyberattacks. Sanger’s June scoop, along with the Times’ front-page article on Obama’s terrorist “kill list,” spurred Congressional calls to investigate the leaks of classified information.
Journalists have long feared a chilling effect resulting from the Obama administration's unprecedented number of prosecutions in leak cases. The seizure of two months worth of AP journalists phone records has only heightened concerns as the Maryland case continues.
The Washington Post reported in January that Holder appointed U.S. attorney for Maryland Rod J. Rosenstein to lead the inquiry following Sanger’s article and follow-up reporting in other outlets. According to Post, federal investigators had “increased pressure on current and former senior government officials suspected of involvement” in leaks about a secret operation that involved the Stuxnet computer worm.
A DOJ spokeswoman did not respond to questions regarding the Stuxnet investigation.
The Times isn't publicly addressing concerns over where the Stuxnet investigation may lead. "We’ve had no communication with the government," a Times spokeswoman told The Huffington Post.
The AP wasn’t informed that the government had obtained records for 20 phone lines until after the fact. The secret seizure broke with typical protocol between news organizations and the government, but is not illegal. The DOJ’s subpoena not only targeted reporters and an editor directly involved in a May 2012 story on a thwarted terrorist plot in Yemen, but also the AP Washington bureau chief and switchboard lines widely used by reporters at the news organization.
Holder didn’t allay fears within the press on Wednesday by telling NPR that he’s “not sure” how many times his department has secretly obtained records of journalists’ work during leak investigations.
So far, Holder’s department hasn't provided any new details to counter the AP’s long-running claim that the news organization held off publishing its May 2012 story until officials said they no longer had concerns that a "sensitive intelligence operation was still under way" and because the administration planned to publicly announced the thwarted plot the following day. (Sanger could make a similar claim, having told Gawker in June that “no government agency formally requested that I not publish the story.”)
HuffPost’s Ryan Reilly and Sam Stein wrote Tuesday that Holder’s defense of his department's actions “could be distilled down to a simple plea: trust us, we mean no harm.”
Holder's defense didn't sit well with the Times editorial board. In a Wednesday editorial, Times editors blasted the AP records seizure as "a fishing expedition for sources and an effort to frighten off whistle-blowers." The editorial also noted two "major press investigations," including one believed focused on Sanger's reporting.
"These tactics will not scare us off, or The AP," Times editors wrote, "but they could reveal sources on other stories and frighten confidential contacts vital to coverage of government."