The Justice Department lays out strict rules for efforts to get phone records from news organizations. A subpoena can be considered only after "all reasonable attempts" have been made to get the same information from other sources, the rules say. It was unclear what other steps, in total, the Justice Department might have taken to get information in the case.
A subpoena to the media must be "as narrowly drawn as possible" and "should be directed at relevant information regarding a limited subject matter and should cover a reasonably limited time period," according to the rules.
The reason for these constraints, the department says, is to avoid actions that "might impair the news gathering function" because the government recognizes that "freedom of the press can be no broader than the freedom of reporters to investigate and report the news."
News organizations normally are notified in advance that the government wants phone records and then they enter into negotiations over the desired information. In this case, however, the government, in its letter to the AP, cited an exemption to those rules that holds that prior notification can be waived if such notice, in the exemption's wording, might "pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation."
It is unknown whether a judge or a grand jury signed off on the subpoenas.
Arnie Robbins, executive director of the American Society of News Editors, said, "On the face of it, this is really a disturbing affront to a free press. It's also troubling because it is consistent with perhaps the most aggressive administration ever against reporters doing their jobs — providing information that citizens need to know about our government."
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a potential 2016 presidential candidate, said: "The Fourth Amendment is not just a protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, it is a fundamental protection for the First Amendment and all other Constitutional rights. It sets a high bar — a warrant — for the government to take actions that could chill exercise of any of those rights. We must guard it with all the vigor that we guard other constitutional protections."