Editorial: Wrong number — It’s time to examine prosecutors’ sweeping powers to collect data
by The Anniston Star Editorial Board
May 14, 2013 | 3021 views |  0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Americans learned this week that the Department of Justice seized two month’s worth of phone records from Associated Press reporters in 2012.

The reviews are in, and they are brutal.

“Outrageous, totally inexcusable,” said Carl Bernstein, famed investigative journalist.

“This action is unwarranted and absolutely strikes at the heart of the press freedoms we cherish in the United States,” said Vincent Duffy, Radio Television Digital News Association chairman.

“There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of the Associated Press and its reporters,” said Gary Pruitt, the AP’s president and CEO.

The “unknowns” outnumber the “knowns” at this early stage of this scandal. What specifically was the Justice Department looking for? Why did it target five AP reporters and an editor? By what method were the records gathered? The DOJ’s letter to the Associated Press is skimpy on those details.

What can be said with more certainty is that the Justice Department likely broke no laws in collecting this data. Government prosecutors have broad latitude when it comes to pursuing the paper and electronic trail created by journalists or anyone else.

Applying court precedent, the Patriot Act and other legislation, law enforcers can require phone companies, Internet service providers, search engines, social media outlets and others to turn over your records. The justifications necessary to gather this data are not especially difficult. In the AP phone records case, prosecutors need only to have claimed the information was relevant to an investigation, and not that there was probable cause of a crime being committed.

What’s more, the guardians of these records are typically barred from informing the target of said record-gathering that prosecutors are on his or her tail.

It’s not just high-tech information, either. Under the Patriot Act, investigators can clandestinely examine your public library records.

The justifiable outrage at this sweeping collection on journalists’ phone records has a red-hot spotlight on it this week. Before it cools down, Washington’s leaders should thoroughly consider fine-tuning the nation’s laws to better protect the privacy of citizens and the First Amendment-guaranteed practice of journalism.
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