- The president and chief executive officer of the Associated Press yesterday 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. He said the Justice Department's investigation is out of control, and that President Obama should rein it in.
"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," Pruitt 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 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.
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.