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Justice Department defends surveillance of AP reporter phone calls

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The Associated Press reported yesterday that the Justice Department conducted widespread surveillance of its reporters' phone calls, potentially revealing "communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period." But while the White House has denied knowledge of the data collection and privacy supporters have decried it, the Department of Justice itself appears unworried. New York Times reporter Charlie Savage has posted Deputy Attorney General James Cole's private response to a letter by AP CEO Gary Pruitt. In it, Cole defended the surveillance, saying that it was well within legal boundaries.

Cole reframed the AP's complaints to argue that relatively little data was collected. "The subpoenas were limited to a reasonable period of time and did not seek the content of any calls," he said. "Indeed, although the records do span two months, as we indicated to you last week, they cover only a portion of that two-month period." Subpoenas to collect records of outgoing calls and possibly other information, said Cole, were obtained only after "conducting over 550 interviews and reviewing tens of thousands of documents" to establish reasonable suspicion and exhaust other avenues.

"The subpoenas were limited to a reasonable period of time and did not seek the content of any calls."

The AP has not posted the original letter about the subpoena, and at this point, it seems unlikely that the Justice Department will reveal further information. The investigation, Cole said, is ongoing and involves classified material, limiting what can be released. "We strive in every case to strike the proper balance between the public's interest in the free flow of information and the public's interest in the protection of national security and effective enforcement of our criminal laws," he concluded. "We believe we have done so in this matter."

Update: While Cole defended the subpoenas, Attorney General Eric Holder has said at a press conference that he personally recused himself from the decision to seek them. "I don't know all that went into the formulation of the subpoena," he said, as reported by The Hill. "Because I was one of the people who had knowledge of this matter, I have frequent contact with the media and try to make sure that this investigation was seen as one that was independent and to avoid even the possibility of an appearance of a conflict, I made the determination to recuse myself." However, he said that he believed the investigation was in order, asserting that it was in response to a "very, very serious leak."

Update: Pruitt has responded to this latest letter, reiterating his concerns. "The scope of the subpoena was overbroad under the law, given that it involved seizing records from a broad range of telephones across AP's newsgathering operation," he writes. "More than 100 journalists work in the locations served by those telephones. How can we consider this inquiry to be narrowly drawn?"