Leaks, The Justice Department and the Associated Press
Attorney General Eric Holder responded yesterday to the news that the Justice Department seized two months of Associated Press phone records. Security!
This was a very serious leak and a very, very serious leak. I’ve been a prosecutor since 1976 and I have to say that this is among, if not the most serious, it is within the top two or three most serious leaks I’ve ever seen. It put the American people at risk. That’s not hyperbole. It put the American people at risk.
Leaks! The government doesn’t like them. And Holder’s Justice Department has prosecuted more alleged leakers under the World War 1-era Espionage Act than all his predecessors combined.
In this case, the alleged leak lead to the AP reporting on a Yemeni-based plot to blow up an airplane.
Here’s some of what we’re reading on the story.
Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian: Justice Department’s pursuit of AP’s phone records is both extreme and dangerous.
The legality of the DOJ’s actions is impossible to assess because it is not even known what legal authority it claims nor the legal process it invoked to obtain these records. Particularly in the post-9/11 era, the DOJ’s power to obtain phone records is, as I’ve detailed many times, dangerously broad. It often has the power to obtain those records without the person’s knowledge (as happened here) and for a wildly broad scope of time (as also happened here). There are numerous instruments that have been vested in the DOJ to obtain phone records, many of which do not require court approval, including administrative subpoenas and “national security letters” (issued without judicial review); indeed, the Obama DOJ has previously claimed it has the power to obtain journalists’ phone records without subpoeans using NSLs, and in its relentless pursuit to learn the identity of the source for one of New York Times’ James Risen’s stories, the Obama DOJ has actually claimed that journalists have no shield protections whatsoever in the national security context. It’s also quite possible that they obtained the records through a Grand Jury subpoena, as part of yet another criminal investigation to uncover and punish leakers.
None of those processes for obtaining these invasive records requires a demonstration of probable cause or anything close to it. Instead, the DOJ must simply assert that the records “relate to” a pending investigation: a standard so broad that virtually every DOJ desire will fulfill it.
Emily Bazelon, Slate: Obama’s War on Journalists:
Whether a leak threatens national security is clearly not the standard Holder and his department are using. And the problem is that the standard is up to them. The 1917 Espionage Act, the basis for most of these cases, was written to go after people who compromised military operations. Back in 1973, the major law review article on that statute concluded that Congress never intended to go after journalists with it, or even their sources. Since then, legal scholars have proposed various ways of narrowing the Espionage Act—University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone wants to limit the law’s reach to cases in which there’s proof that a reporter knows publication will wreck national security without contributing to the public debate. But Congress has done nothing of the sort. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Republicans who are indignant over the AP investigation got serious about reform? Somehow, I doubt it. Instead, with a Democratic White House leading the charge, it’s hard to see who will stop this train.
Timothy Lee, Washington Post: In AP surveillance case, the real scandal is what’s legal
But here’s what’s really scary: The Justice Department’s actions are likely perfectly legal.
U.S. law allows the government to engage in this type of surveillance—on media organizations or anyone else—without meaningful judicial oversight.
The key here is a legal principle known as the “third party doctrine,” which says that users don’t have Fourth Amendment rights protecting information they voluntarily turn over to someone else. Courts have said that when you dial a phone number, you are voluntarily providing information to your phone company, which is then free to share it with the government.
Brian Fung, National Journal: What the AP Subpoena Scandal Means for Your Electronic Privacy.
It’s not just journalists and their sources who stand to suffer from an erosion of the legal barriers between government and businesses. Here’s a short list of your personal information companies can hand over to the feds without repercussion, and on little more than a subpoena: geolocation data, the PCs you’ve accessed, emails you’ve sent and text messages and content you’ve placed on cloud services like Dropbox.
Image: Boiling Water, by Tom Tomorrow, March 2011. Since this cartoon, the government has prosecuted a sixth alleged leaker under the Espionage Act. Select to embiggen.