While embroiled in two major investigations related to the Benghazi attack and the IRS’ admission that it has been targeting conservatives, the Obama administration is now facing a third scandalous accusation: It reportedly spied on Associated Press reporters just months before the 2012 presidential election.
The AP said the Justice Department secretly seized two months of reporters’ and editors’ telephone records without explanation in April and May 2012. In the AP’s report on the scandal, President and CEO Gary Pruitt called the Justice Department’s move “a massive and unprecedented intrusion” into how news organizations gather the news.
Pruitt wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder demanding the records and all copies be returned. According to the AP, “News organizations normally are notified ahead of time that the government wants phone records and enter into negotiations over the requested 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.’”
More than 100 journalists who report on government and other matters work in offices the administration targeted. While Justice Department rules call for subpoenas of news records to be approved by Holder, it’s unclear whether he ordered the action.
“There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters,” Pruitt told Holder. “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.”
According to reports, the Obama administration still hasn’t provided a reason for the seizure or revealed whether a judge or a grand jury signed off on the subpoenas.
“Officials have previously said in public testimony that the U.S. attorney in Washington is conducting a criminal investigation into who may have provided information contained in a May 7, 2012, AP story about a foiled terror plot,” the AP reported. “The story disclosed details of a CIA operation in Yemen that stopped an al-Qaida plot in the spring of 2012 to detonate a bomb on an airplane bound for the United States.
“In testimony in February, CIA Director John Brennan noted that the FBI had questioned him about whether he was AP’s source, which he denied. He called the release of the information to the media about the terror plot an ‘unauthorized and dangerous disclosure of classified information.’”
The AP said the 2012 terror 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.'"
According to the news organization, the story was written by reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman with contributions from reporters Kimberly Dozier, Eileen Sullivan and Alan Fram. Those reporters, along with editor Ted Bridis, had their phone records seized.
It is believed the government obtained the records from phone companies, and it's still unclear whether the actual phone calls were monitored.
The AP noted, "The Obama administration has aggressively investigated disclosures of classified information to the media and has brought six cases against people suspected of providing classified information, more than under all previous presidents combined."
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the investigative House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told CNN, "They had an obligation to look for every other way to get it before they intruded on the freedom of the press."
The House Ways and Means Committee said it will hold a hearing on the IRS matter Friday.
News of the phone records seizure comes amid reports of numerous scandals plaguing the Obama administration, including an investigation into its response to the Benghazi terror attack and the Internal Revenue Service's Friday admission that it had targeted conservative groups with descriptions including "tea party" and "patriots" with increased scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status.
"I've got no patience with it. I will not tolerate it," Obama said Monday, referring to the IRS' actions while he made a White House appearance with British Prime Minister David Cameron. "And we will make sure that we find out exactly what happened on this."
Obama said he first learned about the issue Friday. The Treasury Department's inspector general for tax administration is expected to issue an audit report this week.
According to NBC News, Lois Lerner, head of the IRS division on tax-exempt organizations, claimed the IRS' actions were "inappropriate" but "absolutely not" influenced by the White House.
The News Tribune reported that acting IRS Commissioner Steven T. Miller – who had been informed of the issue on May 3, 2012 – "repeatedly failed to tell Congress that tea-party groups were being inappropriately targeted, even after he had been briefed on the matter."
In June 2011, members of Congress sent letters to former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman inquiring about its targeting of conservatives. NBC News noted, "The IRS responded at least six times but made no mention of targeting conservatives."
Meanwhile, the simultaneous investigations have put Obama on the defensive.
In his Friday appearance on "The Rusty Humphries Show," Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., suggested Obama's role in the Benghazi cover-up could lead to the president's impeachment.
Inhofe said, "People may be starting to use the I-word before too long."