The offices of the Associated Press in Manhattan, New York May 13, 2013. Reuters/Adrees Latif
On a Friday afternoon in May, a lawyer for the Associated Press received a letter from the Justice Department informing the news agency that, unbeknownst to it, the DoJ had obtained two months’ worth of phone records for twenty AP phone lines—including the personal and office lines of five reporters and an editor—at several AP bureaus. The records were obtained without the approval of a court, and without advance notice to the AP or the affected journalists.
The press is, as expected, up in arms, as are members of Congress from both parties. But it’s far from clear that the DoJ did anything wrong. Because the subpoena was issued in an ongoing criminal investigation, there is only limited public information about why the prosecutor made such a sweeping request. But the leak being investigated was indisputably serious. It concerned an ongoing CIA operation that had apparently infiltrated a terrorist cell of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Whoever revealed that fact was no whistleblower; it’s difficult to see any possible justification for revealing that we had infiltrated a terrorist cell. The AP, at the government’s request, did delay publishing the story, but that hardly exculpates the leaker, who compromised a critically important ongoing investigation. Attorney General Eric Holder called it one of the gravest leaks he’s seen in his entire career.
The Justice Department sought the AP records only after spending months pursuing other avenues to identify the leaker, including interviewing 550 people. Only when the interviews proved fruitless did he seek the reporters’ phone records. Five reporters and one editor worked on the story, and if there was no other way to narrow the inquiry, it’s possible that the request for records was justified, and would have been authorized had the Justice Department sought court approval.
We know from past experience that there are legitimate grounds for concern about overclassification, punishment of whistleblowers and the chilling of press freedoms. But that doesn’t mean that every leak is an act of heroism, or that every journalist should be immune from criminal investigation. Our legitimate concerns will lose credibility if we too often respond with a jerk of the knee.
But the specifics of the leak and subpoena are much less important than what the incident reveals about the law’s failure to protect not just the press’s confidential communications, but the privacy rights of us all in the digital age. Consider this: in 2011 alone, cellphone companies responded to 1.3 million subpoenas and other requests from law enforcement for subscriber information, including text messages, phone data and location information. Verizon alone responded to more than 260,000 requests. And the numbers have been increasing dramatically each year. AT&T received an average of 700 law enforcement requests a day in 2011, up by 300 percent from 2007.
Why the dramatic increase? So many of us carry smart phones, on which we record our transactions—phone calls, text messages, e-mails, Internet browsing and the like. Smart phones also transmit to our service providers a record of our physical whereabouts. This information can be highly useful to criminal investigations. It can refute an alibi, help identify co-conspirators, track fraudulent transactions and the like. But it can also disclose nearly everything about our personal lives that we do not keep stored exclusively in our (as yet) unwired brains.