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Groups Want DOJ Answers on Targeting Journalists

Free Press, Common Cause, Communications Unions Say Pursuit of AP, Fox News Phone Records Sets Dangerous Precedent 5/24/2013 12:18 PM Eastern
Close to five dozen groups have demanded that attorney general Eric holder provide a "full and transparent" account of DOJ's targeting of journalists and whistleblowers, in particular its subpoena of AP phone records in a whistleblower investigation and reports it had seized phone records of a Fox reporter.

Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, one of 57 groups that sent a letter to Holder expressing their concern, accused Justice of an "appalling abuse of press freedom."

Among those also signing on to the letter included ACLU, Common Cause, the Communications Workers of America, The Newspaper Guild, Prometheus Radio Project, Society of Professional Journalists, Sunlight Foundation and the Writers Guild of America, East.

"Following years of aggressive leak investigations, the Justice Department's overreaching subpoena of AP phone records sets a dangerous precedent," the groups wrote. "Furthermore, it appears to violate the Department's own rules and guidelines. The impact of the Justice Department's actions is already being felt. AP CEO Gary Pruitt reports that sources are now less willing to talk to reporters. And journalists from newsrooms large and small have noted the chilling effects on their coverage of the government."

In a Hill hearing on the issue last week, Holder defended the AP phone record collection by Justice, though said he had not participated in the decision since he was a material witness in the whistleblower investigation.

But the groups singled out another portion of the hearing.

"These troubling developments [both AP and the Fox seizure] raise real questions about the scope of the Department's surveillance of journalists," they wrote. "At a recent congressional hearing, Mr. Holder, you couldn't recall how many times the Justice Department has subpoenaed journalists' records. We need to know the full extent of your Department's crackdown against journalists."

The letter is reprinted in full below:

May 24, 2013

Attorney General Eric Holder
Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole

U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Ave
Washington, DC 20530

Dear Sirs:

More than 50 journalism and press organizations recently wrote you to voice grave concerns about the Justice Department's subpoena of telephone records belonging to Associated Press reporters and editors. We write today as a coalition of civil rights, public interest, transparency and media reform groups to express similar concerns.

Your actions have threatened press freedom - and endangered the health of our democracy. As groups working to strengthen democratic institutions and foster more open government, we are deeply concerned that your agency's actions will hinder efforts to make government more transparent and accountable to the public.

Following years of aggressive leak investigations, the Justice Department's overreaching subpoena of AP phone records sets a dangerous precedent. Furthermore, it appears to violate the Department's own rules and guidelines. The impact of the Justice Department's actions is already being felt. AP CEO Gary Pruitt reports that sources are now less willing to talk to reporters. And journalists from newsrooms large and small have noted the chilling effects on their coverage of the government.

The latest news suggests that the subpoenas were even broader than initially reported. In addition, details are emerging about a case in which the Justice Department also seized phone records from reporters at Fox News and labeled one of its journalists a "co-conspirator" for simply doing his job.

These troubling developments raise real questions about the scope of the Department's surveillance of journalists. At a recent congressional hearing, Mr. Holder, you couldn't recall how many times the Justice Department has subpoenaed journalists' records. We need to know the full extent of your Department's crackdown against journalists.

In the digital age, reporting is no longer confined to America's traditional newsrooms. As such, threats to press freedom threaten anyone who seeks to share information about official actions using a cellphone, social media service or website. The Obama administration promised a new era of openness and transparency. Your actions, which expand secrecy and intimidate those trying to shed more light on our government, run counter to that promise.

We demand a full accounting of the Justice Department's targeting of journalists and whistleblowers. We need this information so that we can advocate for appropriate action to protect everyone's constitutional rights and push for stronger legal standards to protect all types of information gathering and sharing.

The Justice Department must explain its overreach in this matter. Furthermore, we call on the Department to stop violating its existing rules and cease targeting of individuals and organizations reporting on government activity.

September