US & Canada

Q&A: AP phone records seizure

Washington is in uproar after it emerged US justice officials secretly obtained phone records belonging to one of the world's largest news agencies. What exactly is going on?

What records did the US Department of Justice seize?

It obtained records listing the outgoing calls for the work and personal telephone numbers of five reporters and an editor who were involved in an Associated Press (AP) story about a foiled terror plot, according to the news agency's lawyers.

They say the seizure included general switchboard numbers and a fax line for its offices in New York, Hartford, in Connecticut, Washington DC and the US House of Representatives.

The US justice department has said it did not seek the actual content of any calls. In total, records of 20 telephone lines for April and May last year were obtained.

Why did they do that?

It is understood that the records were seized as part of a justice department investigation into whether someone leaked classified information to AP for its article about the foiled terror plot.

In June 2012, a month after the report's publication, US Attorney General Eric Holder ordered two prosecutors to pursue separate leak inquiries, the subject of which he did not identify.

The launch of those investigations followed calls by Congress to crack down on national security leaks after the AP article in question, and following a New York Times expose on a computer virus that sabotaged Iran's nuclear centrifuges.

What was AP's story about?

On 7 May 2012, AP published an article about a CIA operation to disrupt an al-Qaeda plot in Yemen to blow up a US-bound airplane, close to the one-year anniversary of Osama Bin Laden's death.

The AP story - sourced to unnamed "US officials" - said the plot was an "upgrade" of the failed underwear plane bombing plot over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. The news agency said officials had asked it not to publish the report.

It came after the White House told the public it had "no credible information that terrorist organisations, including al-Qaeda, are plotting attacks in the US to coincide with the anniversary of Bin Laden's death".

Was there a plot?

It appears so. In February this year, CIA Director John Brennan was questioned about the matter by the Senate intelligence committee.

He said "we had inside control of the plot and the device was never a threat to the American public".

US and European authorities later said the conspiracy had been exposed because of an informant planted by MI5, Britain's counter-terrorism agency.

Is the phone records seizure unusual?

Yes. AP said it first learned what had happened through a letter it received from the US Attorney for the District of Columbia last week.

Generally, news organisations are approached before the seizure of such records, and given an opportunity to negotiate or attempt to quash the subpoena on legal grounds. No such warning was issued in this case.

The office of the US Attorney for DC said it was common to notify a news organisation of a subpoena in advance, "unless doing so would pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation".

How is AP responding?

AP wrote a letter of protest on 13 May to the justice department, accusing it of a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into how media organisations gather news.

AP's chief executive has demanded the return of the phone records and destruction of all copies. The justice department refused. The reporters who worked on the Yemen article are not covering the current story.

The former chief of AP's Washington bureau, Ron Fournier, told MSNBC: "These folks at the Associated Press are now going to double down on investigating the White House. They're not going to be intimidated."

Is the leak inquiry big?

Apparently so. The justice department said its investigators had conducted more than 550 interviews and reviewed tens of thousands of documents, even before seizing AP's phone records.

Mr Holder said he was questioned by the FBI in June 2012. The US attorney general removed himself "early on" from the inquiry out of "an abundance of caution", to avoid any conflict of interest, he said.

CIA Director John Brennan acknowledged during his Senate confirmation hearing he had also been interviewed by investigators. He told Congress he had not disclosed any classified information.

Why the focus on leaks?

The Obama administration has taken a hard line on revealing classified government information. Six officials have been prosecuted, compared with three under all previous US presidents combined.

They include a former CIA officer, John Kiriakou, who was convicted in February 2012 of leaking details about the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, a suspected al-Qaeda financier.

The US attorney general said AP's Yemen story was a "very grave leak". Republicans are calling for him to quit, but last year they demanded a crackdown on leaks, accusing the White House of leaks to boost Mr Obama's national security credentials before November's election.