News broke on Monday that the Department of Justice secretly sought phone records of reporters at the Associated Press, likely as part of an investigation into several national security related leaks.
Last year, the Associated Press reported that an Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) plot had been foiled, thanks to a timely intervention on the part of the United States. The plan, according to the AP’s March 2012 story, involved an upgrade of the “underwear bomb” used in the failed Christmas Day 2009 bomb plot that was meant to take down a passenger airplane in Detroit, MI.
Why that drew the attention of the Justice Department, however, is that the CIA was the one who foiled the plot, which the AP report made clear:
The FBI is examining the latest bomb to see whether it could have passed through airport security and brought down an airplane, officials said. They said the device did not contain metal, meaning it probably could have passed through an airport metal detector. But it was not clear whether new body scanners used in many airports would have detected it.
The would-be suicide bomber, based in Yemen, had not yet picked a target or bought a plane ticket when the CIA stepped in and seized the bomb, officials said. It’s not immediately clear what happened to the alleged bomber.
AP learned of the plot a week before publishing, but “agreed to White House and CIA requests not to publish it immediately” due to national security concerns. But, by reporting the CIA’s involvement in foiling the plot, they put AQAP on notice that the CIA had a window into their activities. The AP’s reporting also led to other stories involving an operative in place within AQAP, and details of the operations he was involved in. That operative, it was feared, would be exposed and targeted by AQAP as retribution for siding with the United States.
John Brennan, who is now the head of the CIA, said at his confirmation hearing that the release of information to AP was an “unauthorized and dangerous disclosure of classified information.” That the Department of Justice would be pursuing information on these leaks is also not new, given Attorney General Eric Holder’s appointment of federal prosecutors to look into the disclosures last year. What is surprising is the large amount of information the Justice Department seems to have acquired in its pursuit:
In all, the government seized those records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists in April and May of 2012. The exact number of journalists who used the phone lines during that period is unknown but more than 100 journalists work in the offices whose phone records were targeted on a wide array of stories about government and other matters.
The Associated Press released its letter to Holder denouncing the invasion of their records without their consent, calling it an “unprecedented step” and “a serious interference with AP’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news.”
In a statement on the case, the U.S. Attorney’s D.C. office claimed that “because we value the freedom of the press, we are always careful and deliberative in seeking to strike the right balance between the free flow of information and the public interest” in carrying out those laws. Despite that, this investigation appears unusually broad. And the full extent of the Department of Justice investigation, and whether other news outlets were targeted in the course of their inquiries, remains unclear.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Christmas Day bomb plot took place in 2011. It was actually foiled in 2009.