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AP Slams Justice Department Over Seizure of Phone Records

AP president and CEO wants the justice department to return phone records reportedly seized over two months in early 2012

Associated Press president and chief executive officer Gary Pruitt lashed out at the U.S. Department of Justice on Monday, accusing department of seizing records for more than 20 phone lines assigned to journalists in the AP's New York City, Washington, D.C. and Hartford, Conn., bureaus, as well as in the House of Representatives and the AP's general number in New York City, in what Pruitt called a "massive and unprecedented intrusion." 

In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Pruitt slams the department and demands that the seized records to be returned.

"I am writing to object in the strongest possible terms to a massive and unprecedented intrusion by the Department of Justice into the newsgathering activities of The Associated Press," Pruitt writes. "There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters … While we evaluate our options we urgently request that you immediately return to the AP the telephone toll records that the department subpeonaed and destroy all copies."

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Pruitt asserts that the phone records were secretly obtained without notice, and included home phone and cell phone records of individual journalists.

The records seizure, which Pruitt says was brought to his attention in a letter last Friday from United States Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr., cover a two-month period in early 2012.

In the letter, Pruitt asserts that the records could potentially reveal confidential resources of the AP, and "disclose information about AP's activities that the government has no conceivable right to know."

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In a statement provided to TheWrap, the U.S. Attorney''s Office said that it notifies media organizations when it subpoenas records, except when it would "pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation."

"We take seriously our obligations to follow all applicable laws, federal regulations, and Department of Justice policies when issuing subpoenas for phone records of media organizations. Those regulations require us to make every reasonable effort to obtain information through alternative means before even considering a subpoena for the phone records of a member of the media," the statement reads. "We must notify the media organization in advance unless doing so would pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation. Because we value the freedom of the press, we are always careful and deliberative in seeking to strike the right balance between the public interest in the free flow of information and the public interest in the fair and effective administration of our criminal laws."

That statement is unlikely to appease Pruitt, who claims that the Department of Justice has violated its own policy stating that a subpoena for a member of the press' phone records need to be "as narrowly drawn as possible."

"The sheer volume of records obtained, most of which can have no plausible connection to any ongoing investigation, indicates, at a minimum, that this effort did not comply with 28 C.F.R. Subsection 50.10 and should therefore never have been undertaken in the first place," Pruitt writes. "The regulations require that, in all cases and without exception, a subpoena for a reporter's telephone toll records must be 'as narrowly drawn as possible.' This plainly did not happen."