AP chief on “chilling effect” of DOJ crackdown, wants new protections for reporters

AP Chief Gary Pruitt

The Associated Press is pressuring the Justice Department to enact new protections for journalists in the midst of its war on whistleblowers and leakers.

During a speech on Friday at the National Press Club, Associated Press President and CEO Gary Pruitt again explained that the actions taken by the Justice Department to seize phone records of reporters were “so broad, so overreaching and so secretive that it violated the protective zone that the First Amendment provides journalists in the United States.” Pruitt also outlined five recommendations that he hope Attorney General Eric Holder would consider to ensure that this never happens again.

Last month, the Associated Press revealed that the Justice Department had secretly obtained phone records from four of its offices as part of an investigation into a leak of classified information about a foiled terrorist attack that was appeared in an AP story last May. In appearance on Face the Nation soon after the story broke, Pruitt said that the seizure of the media phone records is “unconstitutional.”

Just days after the AP story became public knowledge, the Washington Post reported that James Rosen, the Chief Washington Correspondent for Fox News, was named as a co-conspirator an affidavit filed by the Justice Department in relation to the investigation of State Department official who had leaked classified informatioin to the press.

In the speech at the National Press Club, Pruitt explained that the Justice Department’s targeting of reporters has had a “chilling effect on newsgathering” as sources are now afraid to talk to the media.

“The actions of the DOJ against AP are already having an impact beyond the specifics of this case. Some longtime trusted sources have become nervous and anxious about talking with us — even on stories unrelated to national security,” noted Pruitt. “In some cases, government employees we once checked in with regularly will no longer speak to us by phone. Others are reluctant to meet in person.”

Pruitt explained that the AP isn’t the only news agency to feel the effect of the DOJ’s crackdown. “Journalists from other news organizations have personally told me that it has intimidated both official and nonofficial sources from speaking to them as well,” he said. “Now, the government may love this. But beware a government that loves too much secrecy.”

The remedy, according to Pruitt, are a series of recommendations that he is encouraging the Justice Department to adopt. He wants news agencies to have advance notice so that they may make a case against seizure of records. Pruitt also explained that there should be judicial oversight to “ensure that checks and balances are maintained.”

Pruitt encouraged the DOJ to update its policy “to bring [it] into the 21st century” by protecting reporters’ e-mails and text messages. He also wants a guarantee that the DOJ will never prosecute a journalist for doing their job.

“We want the Department to institutionalize formally what Attorney General Holder has said publicly: that the Justice Department will not prosecute any reporter for doing his or her job,” said Pruitt. “The Department should not criminalize — or threaten to criminalize — journalists for doing their jobs, such as by calling them co-conspirators under the Espionage Act, as they did Fox reporter James Rosen. This needs to be part of an established directive, not only limited to the current administration.”

Holder is due to report his recommendations to President Barack Obama next month. It’s unclear if they’ll be strong enough to appease the media. Even if they are, however, the damage has already been done, both in terms of the precedents set and the sources who are no longer willing to talk to reporters. That only brings less sunlight to administrations, which is troublesome, regardless of who is in the White House.

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