A Minute With...

Brant Houston, expert in investigative journalism

5/15/2013  8:00 am

On Friday (May 10), the U.S. Department of Justice informed The Associated Press that the department had obtained two months of phone records from more than 20 phone lines associated with The AP and its reporters. The AP’s CEO objected in strong terms on Monday to what he termed a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into The AP’s newsgathering activities. The phone company records, apparently obtained through a subpoena, may have been requested in connection with the leak of classified information leading to an AP story last May about a foiled al-Qaida bomb plot. But the implications were chilling to many journalists, including Brant Houston, the Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois, who was interviewed by News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.

What was your reaction after hearing about this? Why has this raised such concerns among journalists?

image of professor brant houstonThis is a pretty outrageous example of the government going way beyond what is necessary to determine the sources of a national security leak. It breaks longstanding arrangements between the government and the press to ensure such stories based on leaks do not endanger the public. In fact, the head of The AP has said that they discussed the story and held publication at the government’s request until it was clear they could go forward. The subpoenas appear to be overly broad, as The AP and others have said, and threaten the press’s ability and its freedom to gather news.

How so?

If you start issuing broad subpoenas you are not only intimidating journalists, you are intimidating your citizens and government employees who will fear to come forward and expose waste, fraud and abuse.

You mention arrangements between the government and the press, and that the Justice Department has been accused of violating these. What are these arrangements and how did they originate?

There are regulations governing subpoenas meant to ensure press freedoms and restrain the government from impairing the press’s right to cover “controversial public issues.” The regulations have been developed over time to prevent abuses of power by the Justice Department. But the department’s own Office of the Inspector General has found the FBI violating the regulations in previous cases over past the decade.

It has been noted in the coverage of this that the Obama administration has been especially aggressive in finding and prosecuting alleged leakers of classified information, with national security often the stated rationale. How far is too far when the news media is involved? Where should the line be drawn between security and freedom of the press?

We don’t have to reinvent the discussion and lines between security and freedom of the press. The issues are carefully outlined in the regulations and in fact the mainstream press has shown tremendous restraint before and after 9/11, carefully weighing the need to publish a story against the need for national security. Governments are powerful entities that can intentionally or unintentionally abuse their powers and they need to be held in check by a free press.

Is there any kind of information that could yet be produced that might persuade you this action was more justified than you think it now appears?

We in journalism have yet to see information that proves this broad action as justified.  As the story has progressed, we see more contradictory statements coming from the government on the need to issue these subpoenas. It’s also a bit worrisome when the Justice Department says it can’t solve the case without going after reporters’ telephone records – even when it says it has already conducted 550 interviews and collected tens of thousands of documents.


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