AP CEO: Secret seizure of phone records ‘unconstitutional’

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In this Sunday, May 19, 2013, photo provided by CBS News, Gary Pruitt, the President and CEO of the Associated Press, discusses the leak investigation that led to his reporters’ phone records being subpoenaed by the Justice Department on CBS’s “Face the Nation” in Washington. (AP Photo/CBS, Chris Usher)

Associated Press President and CEO Gary Pruitt called the U.S. Justice Department’s sweeping and secret seizure of journalists’ telephone records “unconstitutional” during an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday.

Pruitt, a former First Amendment attorney, told host Bob Schieffer that the DOJ acted as “judge, jury and executioner” with the overbroad action and said it would have a negative impact on journalism. Some officials are already telling AP they’re “a little reluctant” to talk and fear they’re being monitored by the government, he said.

Read or watch the AP news story.

Updated: AP responds to latest DOJ letter

Statement from May 14, 2013

From Gary Pruitt, president and CEO of The Associated Press:

We appreciate the DOJ’s prompt response, but it does not adequately address our concerns. The letter simply restates the law and claims that officials have complied with it. There are three significant concerns:

The scope of the subpoena was overbroad under the law, given that it involved seizing records from a broad range of telephones across AP’s newsgathering operation. More than 100 journalists work in the locations served by those telephones. How can we consider this inquiry to be narrowly drawn?

Rather than talk to us in advance, they seized these phone records in secret, saying that notifying us would compromise their investigation. They offer no explanation of this, however.

Instead they captured the telephone numbers between scores of AP journalists and the many people they talk to in the normal business of gathering news. How would narrowing the scope of the phone records have compromised their investigation?

In their response today, the DOJ says the seized records cover only a portion of April and May of 2012. However, in their original notification to us on May 10, they say they have “received toll records from April and May 2012,” and then list 20 different numbers for AP offices and staff.

Finally, they say this secrecy is important for national security. It is always difficult to respond to that, particularly since they still haven’t told us specifically what they are investigating.

We believe it is related to AP’s May 2012 reporting that the U.S. government had foiled a plot to put a bomb on an airliner to the United States. We held that story until the government assured us that the national security concerns had passed. Indeed, the White House was preparing to publicly announce that the bomb plot had been foiled.

The White House had said there was no credible threat to the American people in May of 2012. The AP story suggested otherwise, and we felt that was important information and the public deserved to know it.

Statement from May 13, 2013

The U.S. Department of Justice notified The Associated Press on Friday, May 10, that it had secretly obtained telephone records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP journalists and offices, including cell and home phone lines.

AP is asking the DOJ for an immediate explanation of the extraordinary action and for the records to be returned to AP and all copies destroyed.  

AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt protested the massive intrusion into AP’s newsgathering activities in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday, May 13.

In the letter Pruitt states:

“There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters. These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP’s newsgathering operations, and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.”

“We regard this action by the Department of Justice as a serious interference with AP’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news.”

Read the AP news story.

Former AP White House photographer honored for ‘Lifetime Achievement’

Former Associated Press Senior White House photographer Ron Edmonds is being honored by the White House News Photographers Association with its Lifetime Achievement Award. It will be presented at the 2013 “Eyes of History” annual awards gala on Saturday, May 11, at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Washington.

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President Barack Obama congratulates AP White House Photographer Ron Edmonds, with his wife Grace and daughter Ashley, upon his retirement from AP. (White House photo by Lawrence Jackson, July 30, 2009)

Edmonds is “the quintessential Washington photojournalist,” said J. David Ake, AP assistant chief of bureau for photography in Washington. “Many of his images have stood the test of time and are now icons in our collective memory. He was arguably during his Washington tenure, the AP’s most published photographer.”

In interviews with AP and PBS, Edmonds offered recollections of his fascinating career and the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan — a split-second that he captured and that earned him a Pulitzer Prize.

“I have had one of the most fantastic jobs in the world,” Edmonds told colleagues in an email upon his retirement from AP after 28 years. “It has allowed me to work with some of the greatest journalists in the world and to make images of some of the biggest events in the last thirty years. I hope that in some small way, I have helped the Associated Press maintain its prominence as the number-one news organization.”

How an AP reporter found $50 billion buried in federal fine print

Ricardo Alonso-Zalvidar

Ricardo Alonso-Zalvidar

In the “Beat of the Week” memos to staff, AP Senior Managing Editor for U.S. News Mike Oreskes tells the stories behind the top news of recent days. In his latest note, he lauds the persistent, meticulous reporting of Washington-based health care reporter Ricardo Alonso-Zalvidar, who also is advising AP reporters across the country in covering the rollout of the Affordable Care Act:

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar has covered health care policy for the AP since 2009, dominating with beat after beat after beat. He has won the respect of colleagues and competitors. He has produced ground breaking policy coverage, a model of the genre, and has been cited here 11 times with honorable mention for work that impressed the Beat of the Week judges.

But for all that, he has never won Beat of the Week.

Finally, his persistence paid off.

Alonso-Zaldivar was studying the fine print (something he does) for the Department of Health and Human Services budget proposal when one number jumped out: a projected $50 billion in new Medicare revenue over the coming decade. That was up from last year’s projection of $28 billion. When Alonso-Zaldivar asked why, neither the White House for its Office of Management and Budget had an answer.

He wrote a spot story pointedly noting the murkiness of the administration’s plans, while at the same time agitating with HHS for an explanation.

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Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, April 12, 2013, before the House Ways and Means Committee hearing on President Barack Obama’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2014, and the HHS. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Two days later, congressional Republicans challenged HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on the same points, and she gave a partial answer: The administration was planning to set up a new way to determine how much seniors pay in Medicare premiums, based on their incomes. It would clearly mean a cost increase for many beneficiaries, but there were no details about who, or how much.

Alonso-Zaldivar seized the opportunity to press his point again, telling his HHS contacts that he planned to put Sebelius’ incomplete answer on the wire.

One of those contacts soon popped a detailed data table into his email inbox, spelling out the details the administration had been reluctant to share. He was able to report exclusively that President Barack Obama’s new budget included a proposal to significantly increase the amounts paid by upper-income retirees in Medicare premiums.

AP was alone with the story throughout the weekend. Even the House Ways and Means Committee, which had challenged Sebelius for answers, read it first in Alonso-Zaldivar’s exclusive.

The story made scores of front pages, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Louisville Courier Journal, Jackson Clarion Ledger, Providence Journal, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It was the lead story in a dozen papers. A follow-up humanized the proposal with the tale of a New Mexico retiree who has an income of $85,000 and would be hit by the increases, and felt penalized for her frugal retirement planning.

None of this was unusual for Alonso-Zaldivar, one of the relatively few people in Washington who has read the entire health care legislation, all 974 pages.

For this persistence and attention to detail, Alonso-Zaldivar wins this week’s $500 prize, his first Beat of the Week, recognition long overdue and now rectified.