Bazelon v. Posner: Was It Scary or Perfectly Reasonable for the Government to Grab the AP’s Phone Records?

Conversations in real time.
May 17 2013 1:52 PM

Secrets and Scoops

Emily Bazelon and Eric Posner debate press freedom, national security, and the government’s grab of the AP’s phone records.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY., make his way from the U.S. Capitol to the Senate Subway on April 10, 2013.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY., make his way from the U.S. Capitol to the Senate Subway on April 10, 2013.

Photo By Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

In the wake of the story this week that the Justice Department scooped up two months’ worth of the phone records of reporters and editors at the Associated Press, University of Chicago law professor and Slate contributor Eric Posner and Slate senior editor Emily Bazelon have been arguing over whether this is an overreach by the Department of Justice and an intrusion on the newsgathering function of the press (Emily), or an entirely justified effort to find and prosecute a scurrilous government leaker who imperiled the country’s counterterrorism operation in Yemen (Eric). Here’s an edited version of their exchange:

Emily: Like a lot of journalists, I am dismayed and indignant about the Justice Department’s commandeering of two months of AP phone records. To me, this is part of a troubling development: The Obama administration has pursued more leak prosecutions—six—more aggressively than any administration in history. For comparison’s sake, as I mentioned earlier this week, from 1917 until 1985, there was one successful federal leak prosecution. Our democracy was the better for the freedom the press has traditionally had to uncover government secrets (see Watergate). In the case of the AP, the particular tactics the government used are worrisome for their breadth—lots of phone lines in different offices over a long period of time—and for the lack of judicial oversight. Instead of serving the AP with a subpoena, which would have alerted the news organization and given it a chance to fight the order in court, DoJ apparently sent the subpoena to the phone companies. The Justice Department decided on its own not to follow its usual policy of giving the press notice of this kind of intrusion, because it apparently decided that giving notice would threaten the integrity of the investigation. It’s hard to see why that would be true of phone records collected after the fact, as New Yorker general counsel Lynn Oberlander points out—and her larger point is that this should be a call for the courts, not prosecutors, to make.

Journalists don’t really have a legal leg to stand on to protect their sources in the federal government, however—especially when any claim can be made that national security is at stake. The 1917 Espionage Act was written to fight sedition and prevent government officials from compromising military security, and has lately become a tool for going after people who leak classified information. My concern is that once a leak investigation is underway, invoking national security almost always trumps the argument that the public benefits from knowing about the internal workings of government. The Justice Department says “trust us” and “sensitive investigation” and that’s that. Why exactly should we follow along like lemmings?

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But that’s not how you see it, I think. To tee you up: Did the government overreach in the AP probe? Or is this the kind of investigative tactic that gets the press and a few civil libertarians up in arms but seems perfectly sensible to everyone else?

Eric: It makes perfect sense to me—I can’t speak for everyone else, whose opinions rarely coincide with mine. The May 2012 AP story that’s at issue disclosed that the CIA thwarted a terrorist plot to plant a bomb on a plane flying to the United States from Yemen. As Orin Kerr explains, anyone who read the story could infer that U.S. or foreign agents had penetrated al-Qaida’s Yemen affiliate. Even if AP delayed publication until after completion of the operation, the information disclosed may have put the lives of agents in danger or disclosed intelligence methods or simply made foreign intelligence agencies yet again doubt the U.S. government’s ability to keep secrets. The story identifies its sources as U.S. government officials, who clearly violated federal secrecy law. The Justice Department acted rightly to investigate these violations. And because it knew that U.S. government officials communicated with AP journalists, it acted rightly to subpoena phone records that might disclose phone numbers of U.S. officials, who could then be questioned.

If the Department of Justice were investigating Wal-Mart, JP Morgan, or Google for violations of antitrust or securities law, the reaction would be a big yawn. Because it is investigating journalists, we are supposed to feel outraged. But why, exactly? I’m not a journalist myself, Emily, so maybe you can explain the unanimous expressions of outrage from the media and its supporters. I can see a worry about whistleblowers being deterred, but no one thinks that this case involves whistleblowers—by all accounts, the operation was a success and not occasion for a cover-up.

Emily: Journalists think we are special when it comes to revealing sources because protecting them gets us stories that the public benefits from knowing. Maybe the AP’s sources for this story weren’t whistleblowers. Since the government won’t tell us what triggered the subpoena, we don’t know. But yes, I do think that blanket orders for records like this one could deter whistleblowers. Consider the case of Thomas Drake, prosecuted for revealing information about waste and mismanagement at the National Security Agency that led to a prize-winning Baltimore Sun series. And consider the enormous number of classified documents and the probability that some of them are kept secret to avoid embarrassment rather than a breach of security. If you were a government employee with access to a secret like that, and you heard about Drake and the AP, wouldn’t you keep quiet?

In assessing the threat to national security, it’s also important to note that the AP held back publication for a week—until the day before a government press conference about the foiled bomb plot. But, conceded, that doesn’t mean the leak itself didn’t pose a great risk. Why shouldn’t the government have to make that showing to a judge? That seems like a speed bump, not a red light. And it would address the “trust us” concern. Maybe even reassure whistleblowers, too.

Eric: You’re right to observe that government officials do not always have good incentives. I’d say they have mixed motives: (1) to protect the country and (2) to protect their hides when they fail at (1). But journalists harbor mixed motives as well. They want to disclose bad behavior among government officials, but they also want attention, Pulitzers, hits, readers—and nothing gets attention like stories about secret counterterrorism operations. The New York Times acted disgracefully by exposing the secret government program to trace money transfers among al-Qaida terrorists in a 2006 article written by Eric Lichtblau and James Risen. They did not expose government malfeasance; they exposed an intelligence operation that al-Qaida would henceforth know to evade. See Jack Goldsmith’s devastating evisceration of Lichtblau’s and his editors’ lame, self-serving rationalizations of their decisions to compromise this valuable intelligence program and others like it.

I agree that courts can play a useful role in arbitrating disputes between the government and the press. But I am not convinced that they would have played a useful role here. The government had no legal obligation to seek approval from the courts, and even its harshest critics agree that if it had, a judge would have rubber-stamped the government’s request under the prevailing legal standard. So what exactly would have been accomplished? The problem is that judges are human beings like the rest of us; when confronted with national security justifications from government lawyers that they cannot directly test or verify, they have no choice but to defer to them, while the procedure would slow down the investigation. If it was a question of someone going to jail, courts would be less deferential, but the harm you describe—that potential whistleblowers in future potential cases may be deterred from talking to journalists—will have to yield to the government’s reasonable request for information so that it can conduct a criminal investigation.

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