Rules published by the Justice Department require that subpoenas of records of news organizations must be personally approved by the attorney general, but it was not known if that happened in this case. The letter notifying AP that its phone records had been obtained through subpoenas was sent Friday by Ronald Machen, the U.S. attorney in Washington.
William Miller, a spokesman for Machen, said Monday that in general the U.S. attorney follows "all applicable laws, federal regulations and Department of Justice policies when issuing subpoenas for phone records of media organizations." But he would not address questions about the specifics of the AP records. "We do not comment on ongoing criminal investigations," Miller said in an email.
The Justice Department lays out strict rules for efforts to get phone records from news organizations. A subpoena can be considered only after "all reasonable attempts" have been made to get the same information from other sources, the rules say. It was unclear what other steps, in total, the Justice Department might have taken to get information in the case.
A subpoena to the media must be "as narrowly drawn as possible" and "should be directed at relevant information regarding a limited subject matter and should cover a reasonably limited time period," according to the rules.
The reason for these constraints, the department says, is to avoid actions that "might impair the news gathering function" because the government recognizes that "freedom of the press can be no broader than the freedom of reporters to investigate and report the news."
News organizations normally are notified in advance that the government wants phone records and then they enter into negotiations over the desired information. In this case, however, the government, in its letter to the AP, cited an exemption to those rules that holds that prior notification can be waived if such notice, in the exemption's wording, might "pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation."
It is unknown whether a judge or a grand jury signed off on the subpoenas.
The May 7, 2012, AP story that disclosed details of the CIA operation in Yemen to stop an airliner bomb plot occurred around the one-year anniversary of the May 2, 2011, killing of Osama bin Laden.
The plot was significant both because of its seriousness and also because the White House previously had told the public it had "no credible information that terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida, are plotting attacks in the U.S. to coincide with the (May 2) anniversary of bin Laden's death."
The AP delayed reporting the story at the request of government officials who said it would jeopardize national security. Once officials said those concerns were allayed, the AP disclosed the plot, though the Obama administration continued to request that the story be held until the administration could make an official announcement.
The May 7 story was written by reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman with contributions from reporters Kimberly Dozier, Eileen Sullivan and Alan Fram. They and their editor, Ted Bridis, were among the journalists whose April-May 2012 phone records were seized by the government.
Brennan talked about the AP story and investigation in written testimony to the Senate. "The irresponsible and damaging leak of classified information was made . . . when someone informed The Associated Press that the U.S. government had intercepted an IED (improvised explosive device) that was supposed to be used in an attack and that the U.S. government currently had that IED in its possession and was analyzing it," he wrote.
He also defended the White House decision to discuss the plot afterward. "Once someone leaked information about interdiction of the IED and that the IED was actually in our possession, it was imperative to inform the American people consistent with government policy that there was never any danger to the American people associated with this al-Qaida plot," Brennan told senators.