U.S. Obtained AP Journalists' Phone Records

The Associated Press says the Justice Department secretly obtained two months of its journalists' telephone records as part of a secret government investigation.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Today we learned of some news from the Associated Press in which the AP is at the center of the story. The newswire service reports that the Justice Department secretly obtained two months of editors and reporters' phone records from last year as part of a government investigation. Late today, the Justice Department issued a statement saying it strives to strike a balance between the need for information in criminal cases and the rights of individuals and news organizations.

NPR's Carrie Johnson joins me now with more. And, Carrie, what do we know about the extent of this gathering of phone logs on AP journalists?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Audie, we know it involves multiple reporters and at least one editor. And the AP says the Justice Department got access to information on 20 phone lines, including office lines, cell lines, home phone lines of reporters, and even a phone line installed in the press gallery of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Now, to be clear, this does not include the content of those phones calls. This is what law enforcement people call tolling information. So it's the to and the from and the duration of the call. So how many minutes or seconds it lasted, no content there.

CORNISH: And what's known about the investigation that the Justice Department was pursuing at the time that led to go after the records?

JOHNSON: The AP says it's not quite sure. It only got notice of thise after the fact, late Friday in a letter from the Justice Department. But AP authorities, including an outside lawyer for AP say it seems to be a story that the AP wrote back in May 2012 about a thwarted bomb plot last year in which the AP reported that a bomb with a very sophisticated new design was in the process of being placed on an airplane headed to the United States but that the U.S. authorities have this bomb and were analyzing it.

CORNISH: But was this a case involving a judge's order or a grand jury issuing a subpoena for these records?

JOHNSON: Net necessarily, Audie. And that's one thing that's going to surprise a lot of people out there. Under current Justice Department guidelines, the Justice Department has the authority to do what it says on its own, so long as the attorney general himself signs off on the subpoena and so long as the DOJ can prove that they tried every other reasonable way to get this information in that in most cases they notify the reporter in advance unless it would undermine the integrity of their investigation. That's one of the things the AP is complaining about here, that they've received no advance notice at all.

CORNISH: Lastly, Carrie, what happens next in this case?

JOHNSON: The AP says it wants copies of those records destroyed. There are going to be lots and lots of questions for the attorney general when he appears on Capitol Hill Wednesday for a regular oversight hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives. Already lawmakers from both political parties are expressing real concern about this. And interest groups on both sides of the aisle who are concerned about privacy are very concerned about the chilling effect this may have on reporters and sources moving forward.

CORNISH: Carrie, thank you.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson, talking about today's Associated Press report that the Justice Department has secretly obtained two months of phone records from AP editors and reporters as part of an investigation.

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