AN ALREADY bad week for the US president Barack Obama became much worse on Tuesday when it was revealed that his administration had secretly seized two months of telephone records for the Associated Press, one of the world’s largest newsgathering agencies.
The “massive and unprecedented intrusion” by Mr Obama’s government into a private company’s business practices came after the Internal Revenue Service was forced to apologise for placing the tax affairs of groups with conservative leanings under extra scrutiny.
“This is the stuff of Third World juntas, not the greatest constitutional republic in human history,” said Matt Kibbe, president of the independent government watchdog group FreedomWorks.
The two episodes prompted scathing criticism for the president from Republican politicians who have long accused him of aggressively pursuing opponents and critics by unacceptable means.
“If the Obama administration is going after reporters’ phone records, they better have a damned good explanation,” said the speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, in a statement released through a spokesman.
Meanwhile Mitch McConnell, leader of the Republican minority in the US Senate, said the White House could not distance itself from the scandals by blaming the IRS and now the Justice Department.
“They take all their cues from the tone expressed by the president, and he’s made it clear that this administration is perfectly willing to crack down on critics,” Mr McConnell said.
Referring to the IRS’s recently exposed policy of targeting groups with words such as “Tea Party” or “patriots” in their names, he added: “This is a lot bigger than just one person. This a whole effort by the administration, across the board, to squelch their opponents, to shut them up, and, finally, they’ve done it in a way that will allow us to call attention to it nationwide.”
Gary Pruitt, the president of AP, expressed his outrage in a letter to the US attorney general Eric Holder, in which he criticised the Justice Department seizing the records of his reporters and editors in April and May 2012.
Federal agents took details of two months of calls from at least 20 lines used by AP, he said, including personal records of some reporters and those from the agency’s offices in New York, Washington DC and Hartford, Connecticut.
No reason was ever given for the subpoena, though Mr Pruitt’s letter noted that the government was at the time looking into the leak of information about a foiled bomb plot involving a US airliner and that the records of five reporters and one editor who worked on the story were among those taken.
“These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP’s newsgathering operations and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know,” Mr Pruitt said.
He said the seizure amounted to “a massive and unprecedented intrusion” by the administration.
Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, was adamant that Mr Obama played no role in the case.
“Other than press reports, we have no knowledge of any attempt by the Justice Department to seek phone records of the AP. We are not involved in decisions made in connection with criminal investigations, as those matters are handled independently by the Justice Department. Any questions about an ongoing criminal investigation should be directed to the Department of Justice,” he said.
But his protestations cut little ice with senior Republicans in Congress. They are already critical of other recent “blemishes” on the government’s record such as the demotion of a State Department official who gave critical “whistle blower” testimony in Washington over last September’s terrorist attack on the US mission on Benghazi, Libya, which killed an ambassador and three other Americans.
Whip Kevin McCarthy promised an inquiry and said the issue would be addressed when Mr Holder attended a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee yesterday.
“I am deeply concerned by numerous reports of misconduct by the administration, from testimony regarding Benghazi to the Internal Revenue Service targeting groups based on political ideology and now the Department of Justice monitoring journalists with the Associated Press,” he said.
Ben Wizner, of the American Civil Liberties Union, shared his view. “Obtaining a broad range of telephone records in order to ferret out a government leaker is an unacceptable abuse of power,” he said.
“Freedom of the press is a pillar of our democracy, and that freedom often depends on confidential communications between reporters and their sources.”