WASHINGTON — The president and chief executive officer of The Associated Press on Sunday called the government’s secret seizure of two months of reporters’ phone records “unconstitutional” and said the news cooperative had not ruled out legal action against the Justice Department.
Gary Pruitt, in his first television interviews since it was revealed the Justice Department subpoenaed phone records of AP reporters and editors, said the move already has had a chilling effect on journalism. Pruitt said the seizure has made sources less willing to talk to AP journalists and, in the long term, could limit Americans’ information from all news outlets.
Pruitt told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that the government has no business monitoring the AP’s newsgathering activities.
“And if they restrict that apparatus … the people of the United States will only know what the government wants them to know and that’s not what the framers of the Constitution had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment,” he said.
In a separate interview with the AP, Pruitt said the news cooperative had not decided its next move but had not ruled out legal action against the government.
“It’s too early to know if we’ll take legal action but I can tell you we are positively displeased and we do feel that our constitutional rights have been violated,” he said.
“They’ve been secretive, they’ve been overbroad and abusive — so much so that taken together, they are unconstitutional because they violate our First Amendment rights,” he added.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said the government needs to stop leaks by whatever means necessary.
“This is an investigation that needs to happen because national security leaks, of course, can get our agents overseas killed,” he said.
Republican Sen. John Cornyn, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said the government should focus on those who leak sensitive national security matters and not on journalists who report on them. The Texas Republican said his committee should hold hearings on how the Justice Department obtained phone records from AP reporters and editors.
“What confuses me is the focus on the press, who have a constitutional right here and we depend on the press to get to the bottom of so many issues that we, as individuals, cannot,” Cornyn said.
Cornyn said the Justice Department’s actions were part of a pattern for President Barack Obama’s administration to quiet its critics.
“It’s a culture of cover-ups and intimidation that is giving the administration so much trouble,” Cornyn said.
He also renewed his call for Attorney General Eric Holder to resign, citing the contempt citation the House of Representatives voted against him last year for refusing to turn over documents in a failed government gun smuggling sting.
White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said the president “has complete faith in Attorney General Holder.” He also insisted the White House was not involved in the decision to seek AP phone records.
“A cardinal rule is we don’t get involved in independent investigations. And this is one of those,” Pfeiffer said.
Although the Justice Department has not explained why it sought phone records from the AP, Pruitt pointed to a May 7, 2012, story that disclosed details of a successful CIA operation in Yemen to stop an airliner bomb plot around the one-year anniversary of the May 2, 2011, killing of Osama bin Laden.
The AP delayed publication of that story at the request of government officials who said it would jeopardize national security.
“We respected that, we acted responsibly, we held the story,” Pruitt said.
Pruitt said that only after officials from two government entities said the threat had passed did the AP publish the story. He said the administration still asked that the story be held until an official announcement the next day, a request the AP rejected.
The news service viewed the story as important because White House and Department of Homeland Security officials were saying publicly there was no credible evidence of a terrorist threat to the U.S. around the one-year anniversary of bin Laden’s death.
“So that was misleading to the American public. We felt the American public needed to know this story,” Pruitt said.
The AP has seen an effect on its newsgathering since the disclosure of the Justice Department’s subpoena, he said.
“Officials that would normally talk to us and people we talk to in the normal course of newsgathering are already saying to us that they’re a little reluctant to talk to us,” Pruitt said. “They fear that they will be monitored by the government.”
The Justice Department secretly obtained two months of personal and work telephone records for several reporters and editors, as well as general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and for the main number for the AP in the House of Representatives press gallery.
“It was sweeping and broad and beyond what they needed to do,” Pruitt said.
He objected to the “Justice Department acting on its own being the judge, jury and executioner in secret,” saying the AP would not back down.
“We’re not going to be intimidated by the abusive tactics of the Justice Department,” he said.
McConnell and Pfeiffer were interviewed on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Cornyn appeared on “Face the Nation.”