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Free Press, Security Concerns Clash in AP Case

A man looks down at his smartphone as he walks past the offices of the Associated Press in Manhattan, New York, May 13, 2013.

A man looks down at his smartphone as he walks past the offices of the Associated Press in Manhattan, New York, May 13, 2013.

Revelations that the U.S. Justice Department secretly obtained phone records from the Associated Press in connection with a leak investigation continue to spark strong reactions. They are coming both from journalist organizations concerned with freedom of the press and government officials focused on national security.

The story involving the government secretly accessing phone records of reporters and editors working for the Associated Press (AP) is the latest skirmish in a long-running battle that pits the journalistic search for truth against the need to protect national security.

The government seized records for 20 separate AP phone lines and told the news agency only after the fact. In the past, the government has usually contacted news organizations in advance, and often a negotiation will ensue about access to phone records and other information related to leak investigations.

Word of the government’s action sparked outrage from the AP and other news organizations, free press groups and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Lucy Dalglish, dean of the journalism program at the University of Maryland and a former executive director of the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press, said, “The sheer volume of records they are going after and the length of time that they are investigating is really quite breathtaking and very, very intrusive.”

The story has also stirred concern in Congress from lawmakers from both parties. Among them is Democratic Representative John Conyers of Michigan.

“I’m troubled by the notion that our government would pursue such a broad array of media phone records over such a long period of time,” he said.

It’s believed the seizure of the phone records are related to AP stories from last year detailing how U.S. officials foiled an al-Qaida terror plot originating in Yemen that involved detonating a bomb aboard a U.S.-bound airliner.

Attorney General Eric Holder described the leak investigation as one of the most serious he’s seen in decades as a federal prosecutor.

“It put the American people at risk, and that is not hyperbole," he said. "It put the American people at risk, and trying to determine who was responsible for that I think required very aggressive action.

Despite the outcry, President Obama defended the leak investigation during a White House news conference, saying, “I make no apologies, and I don’t think the American people would expect me as commander in chief not to be concerned about information that might compromise their missions or might get them killed.”

Analysts say it remains unclear whether press outrage over the phone records story will galvanize the public.

John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center said Americans have generally favored a balanced approach to free press and national security in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

“If you look at polls, there still is a significant body of public opinion, a number of people who say, look, we understand that there are dangers out there," he said. "We want our freedoms, but we also think that there are some governmental powers that we need to protect us, so I think it is a relatively balanced view.”

But journalism advocate Lucy Dalglish urged reporters to adjust their methods to protect themselves from intrusive government investigations.

“Technology is not your friend. Stay off the phone. Stay off email," she cautioned. "Don’t use your credit card. Don’t fly to meet a source on a commercial airline. Stay off of anything that has battery and an on and off switch and go back to meeting your sources on park benches.”

The debate over the AP case has rekindled interest in Congress in trying to pass a shield law that would offer journalists more protections in cases where the government is seeking private information from reporters and editors.
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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.