The government’s probe of the AP phone records: Scary or justified?

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

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?


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.

Emily: OK, we each have our example of excess: For me it’s the case of Thomas Drake, for you it’s the Lichtblau and Risen series. I see runaway prosecutors and you see a runaway press.


I disagree that judges need be a rubber stamp. I’m sure you’re right that they approve most subpoena requests, and maybe that’s OK, because the government’s requests pass the smell test. But two examples to the contrary that give me comfort: In 2008, in the prosecution of another accused leaker, former CIA agent Jeffrey Sterling, New York Times reporter James Risen was subpoenaed about his sources for his book on the history of the CIA during the Bush administration. In 2011, Judge Leonie Brinkema ruled that Risen did not have to testify against Sterling. “A criminal trial subpoena is not a free pass for the government to rifle through a reporter’s notebook,” she wrote. There’s an example of an informed judge standing up to the government’s supposedly sacred invocation of national security. Here’s another older one of a judge standing up for the press: In 1973, Judge Charles Richey denied subpoenas that sought the identity of Deep Throat, the Washington Post’s Watergate source. “This court cannot blind itself to the possible chilling effect the enforcement of these subpoenas would have on the flow of information to the press and thus to the public,'' he said in March 1973, in response to demands for documents from the Post and the NYT by Nixon’s re-election committee.

Brinkema’s decision is on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit—a year after arguments, that court has yet to hand down a ruling. Needless to say, I’m rooting for Risen. Brinkema said that going after a reporter’s sources should be a last resort, and that the government had other options in this case it hadn’t pursued. The deputy attorney general claims that’s not true of the AP probe. But again, why should we trust him, instead of a neutral arbitrator, to make this call?

The White House has tried to soothe the press by promising to reintroduce a federal shield law for journalists. The bill lapsed after the WikiLeaks document dump in 2010. Do you think a statute like this one is a good idea? Would it change anything?

Eric: You mentioned the Sterling case, where Judge Brinkema quashed subpoenas issued by the government to Risen, to force him to testify as to the identity of his source (allegedly Sterling) for a report about a U.S. intelligence operation against Iran. Judge Brinkema ruled against the government because she believed that the Justice Department did not need Risen’s testimony to win its case—which suggests that Risen would have been compelled to testify if the government needed his testimony. The funny thing about this opinion is if you take it literally, the qualified First Amendment privilege that prevails in Brinkema’s court would not actually protect any whistleblower, since it applies only if the government can convict the whistleblower without the reporter’s testimony.


I doubt that this is in fact the case, suggesting the opinion is poorly reasoned—for why would the government try to appeal the opinion if it can convict Sterling without Risen’s testimony? So I accept your view that a judge need not be a rubber stamp. But the pertinent question is whether we can trust judges to adjudicate disputes like this competently—in such a way that balances the government’s interest in protecting leaks and the public’s right to know. On the basis of this harebrained opinion, I would say no.

You also argued in your Slate piece that the Obama administration has launched a “war on journalism” because of the unprecedented number of leak prosecutions—six. According to this helpful article by Charlie Savage, only three prosecutions had ever taken place before Obama assumed office. Savage goes on to suggest that one reason for the increase in prosecutions is simply that it is easier today for the government to catch leakers by following electronic trails than in the analog past. I’d like to make two additional points. First, compared with the astonishing quantity of revelations in books like Risen’s and Lichtblau’s, the actual number of prosecutions is truly minuscule. A government official thinking about blowing the whistle should know that the risk of detection and prosecution is close to zero, even in Obama’s reign of journalistic terror. You said earlier “invoking national security almost always trumps the argument that the public benefits from knowing about the internal workings of government”—but is there anything about recent counterterrorism operations that the public doesn’t know? When these operations succeed, someone leaks classified information so he can gain credit for himself or his boss. When the operations fail, someone leaks classified information so she can place the blame on a rival.

Second, the government faces enormous constraints when it prosecutes leaks, and these constraints overshadow the puny legal considerations, like the vagueness of the Espionage Act, which you rightly note. A recent book by Gabriel Schoenfeld, which recounts the history of the press’ involvement in the disclosure of classified information, discusses many of these. Governments often refrain from prosecuting because they fear that doing so will draw attention to the disclosure of secrets, the seriousness of which enemies might otherwise overlook. Governments often face a “graymail” threat from leakers, journalists, and lawyers, who hint that additional classified information may be disclosed if a trial is held, or that it must be disclosed so that the trial is fair. Then there is the sheer difficulty of proving all the elements of a criminal case, and confronting a jury who may sympathize with whistleblowers. Finally, the government needs the press on its side, and as we have seen from the last few days, the press is perfectly willing to retaliate against the government for what it regards as unwarranted investigations and prosecutions—by, say, whipping up three unrelated penny ante scandals into a toxic brew suggesting something like Rome under Caligula.

So rather than accept the press’ description of itself as David fighting the government’s Goliath, I see something close to a battle among equals, where the press has done rather well. Has a journalist ever been held criminally liable for his or her complicity in the intentional disclosure of classified information, a plain violation of criminal law? I don’t think so. That says a lot about the true balance of power.

In answer to your questions about the proposed shield law: A number of laws have been proposed that would create a reporter’s privilege. The details vary, but the major idea is to protect journalists with a balancing test so that they will not be compelled to disclose sources when the public interest in disclosure “outweighs” the public interest in concealment. So maybe under this standard a court would protect sources who disclose Watergate but not sources who disclose the identities of agents in an undercover counterterrorism operation. There is a vast amount of space between these two extremes; I have no particular confidence that courts would be able to engage in the appropriate balancing for, say, a story that reveals the identities of agents in a counterterrorism operation who might (or might not) have broken some laws. Nor does the Obama administration: The version of the law it supports requires judges to defer to the government when it claims that national security is at issue.

Beyond that, I don’t see the necessity of such a law, given the arguments I’ve made about the magnitude of the political constraints on the prosecution of leakers, and on investigations of journalists. Those constraints ensure that the government will investigate leaks, and bring prosecutions, only in extreme cases. As for the Drake case, your Exhibit A for abusive prosecution of a whistleblower, it exploded in the government’s face. “If they had it to over again, I suspect the department likely would not bring the Drake case,” said a former DOJ spokesman.

Emily: Yes, the detonation of the Drake case is the only good thing about it! But that took years. I’m mulling your characterization of the press and the government as near equals. We don’t see ourselves that way, but maybe that’s because the underdog complex serves our interests. It’s also in our DNA to worry about sources drying up and to prize revelation over secret keeping. I still think, though, that the power of prosecution is the all-mighty one. The press helps to keep it in check, and so do judges. I score lots of points for you in this debate, but I’m hanging on to my faith in the importance of both.