AP's Yost Cuts Holder Undeserved Slack in DOJ's Power-Abusing Phone Records Seizure

In a disptach early this evening, the Associated Press's Pete Yost, perhaps signaling his employer's intent to remain the journalistic lapdog known as the Administration's Press, accepted at face value Attorney General Eric Holder's claim, while defending his department's actions, to have played no role in its wide-ranging subpoena of two months of AP phone records involving 20 cellular, personal and business lines used by over 100 wire service reporters and editors. Yost also did not address whether DOJ received judicial approval for its fishing expedition, a question the AP's Mark Sherman identified last night as unresolved.

It apparently hasn't occurred to Yost that if an Attorney General is aware that his underlings are about to engage in blatant, First Amendment-chilling prosecutorial overreach and intimidation -- a characterization the reporter himself made clear is shared by critics of all political stripes -- merely removing oneself from the case is a completely insufficient reaction. Instead, the AG is duty-bound to order it not to happen, and to remove anyone who chooses to defy his order. If the AG supports what his people have done, then he's responsible for the results and fallout. That's how being the boss is supposed to work. Excerpts from Yost's report follow the jump (bolds are mine):


HOLDER SAYS HE PLAYED NO ROLE IN AP PHONE SUBPOENA

Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday defended the Justice Department's secret examination of Associated Press phone records though he declared he had played no role in it, saying it was justified as part of an investigation into a grave national security leak.

The government's wide-ranging information gathering from the news cooperative has created a bipartisan political headache for President Barack Obama, with prominent Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill expressing outrage, along with press freedom groups.

... Federal officials have said investigators are trying to hunt down the sources of information for a May 7, 2012, AP story that disclosed details of a CIA operation in Yemen to stop an airliner bomb plot around the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden. The probe is being run out of the U.S. Attorney's office in the District of Columbia.

Asked about it at a news conference on a separate topic, Holder said he removed himself from the leaked-information probe because he himself had been interviewed by FBI agents as part of the investigation. He said he wanted to ensure that the probe was independently run and to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest. It was the Justice Department's No. 2 official, Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who made the decision to seek news media phone records, the department said.

"This was a very serious leak, a very grave leak" that "put the American people at risk," Holder said. He called it one of the two or three most serious such episodes he had seen since he became a prosecutor in 1976 but did not say specifically how the disclosure of information about the plot had endangered Americans.

... In a letter to AP on Tuesday, Cole said the Justice Department had adhered to its rules for subpoenas for the news media and hadn't sought information about the content of calls. "The records have not been and will not be provided for use in any other investigations," Cole wrote.

In response, AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt said the department's response failed to justify the breadth of its subpoena, which included phone numbers in locations used by more than 100 journalists.

... In the 30 years since the Justice Department issued guidelines governing subpoena practices relating to phone records from journalists, "none of us can remember an instance where such an overreaching dragnet for newsgathering materials was deployed," said the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Even after the unprecedented dragnet invading his coworkers' (and perhaps his) privacy and potentially compromising his wire service's ability to continue its relationships with confidential sources, Yost's main concern seems to be President Obama's "bipartisan political headache." Amazing.

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.