WASHINGTON (AP) — It was a rare moment in relations between the media and the government: In 2008, FBI Director Robert Mueller called the top editors at The New York Times and The Washington Post to apologize because the bureau had improperly obtained reporters' telephone records four years earlier.
The extraordinary call was an admission that the FBI's actions violated Justice Department policy about seeking journalists' phone records. But nothing about what the FBI did in 2004 appeared to run afoul of any law.
The Justice Department's latest effort to examine whom journalists are talking to — the secret subpoena of Associated Press phone records from April and May of last year — demonstrates how government investigators are guided more by policy and the judgments of high-ranking officials than by specific laws or, in this case, the need to satisfy an independent federal judge.
The AP case involves a criminal investigation into who gave information to the news cooperative's reporters about a foiled bomb plot in Yemen. The AP's May 7, 2012, story attributed details of the operation to unnamed government officials.
The government informed the AP 10 days ago that it had secretly obtained records for 21 phone numbers, including those of the reporters on the bomb plot story. The department's guidelines, first drafted in the wake of Watergate-era government abuses, call for news organizations to be informed before investigators ask phone companies for records unless doing so would compromise the investigation.
Attorney General Eric Holder said the story was the result of "a very serious leak, a very grave leak." AP President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Pruitt called the gathering of phone records a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into how news organizations gather the news.
New developments emerged Monday in another case that has led to the indictment of an official for revealing classified information. Federal prosecutors got a search warrant for the private emails of Fox News reporter James Rosen and used building security records at the State Department to track his movements as they sought to identify whom he had relied on for classified information in a story about North Korea.