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Having gained a reputation for aggressively pursuing leaks of government secrets, the Obama administration has gone a step further with what critics called an unprecedented seizure of journalist records.
The US government was facing a growing backlash Tuesday after revelations that Justice Department had secretly obtained two months of phone records from the news operations of the Associated Press, believed to be part of a probe into an article on a foiled terror plot.
While several public officials have faced prosecution under the Obama administration, analysts say the move against the AP takes the strategy a step further and threatens the constitutional rights of the news media.
"It's surprising and concerning to me that they would sweep so broadly in the search of AP phone records," said David Pozen, a specialist in constitutional and national security law at Columbia University.
"It certainly seems like an aggressive interpretation of the Justice Department's subpoena policy which has been in place since the 1970s to ensure that prosecutors proceed cautiously and narrowly when engaging the news media in such matters," Pozen told AFP.
Bill Buzenberg, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington-based investigative news organization, said his organizations has had "four visits by agencies of government" looking for information on its tax haven investigation
"I feel like the target has shifted to the media," Buzenberg told AFP.
"They are welcome to go after the leakers. The administration has rules and regulations. But they are using the media more in their attempt to squelch leaking."
The AP protested the seizure in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder saying "there can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection" of phone records.
The AP said in a news dispatch that authorities appeared to have sought out the records as part of a criminal investigation into leaked information contained in a May 2012 AP story about a foiled terror plot.
The administration of President Barack Obama had already gained a reputation for prosecuting officials who leak information to reporters.
According to the non-profit investigative group Pro Publica, the Obama administration brought six cases under the Espionage Act, which dates from World War I, more than any other president.
That includes the case against Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks, which is being led by the military.
Civilian prosecutors have filed five cases, including against former CIA officer John Kiriakou for leaking the name of an agent implicated in harsh interrogations of Al-Qaeda suspects; National Security Agency whistleblower Thomas Drake; ex-CIA agent Jeffrey Sterling; former State Department analyst Stephen Kim; and FBI translator Shamai Leibowitz.
Pozen said at least two of the cases were initiated under former president George W. Bush, but that there has nonetheless been an "uptick" under Obama, for reasons that are not entirely clear.
He said it may be a reaction to the WikiLeaks situation or other national security concerns.
In previous administrations, he said, "the White House sends soft signals to take it easy on leak matters, realizing the constitutional sensitivity."
But the current administration "has been so concerned not to tamper with the Justice Department, and this has allowed prosecutors a freer hand."
Criticism mounted from organizations involved in media rights and civil liberties of the AP phone records seizure.
Danielle Brian of the Project On Government Oversight said the Justice Department "has trampled a line meant to protect our free and independent press, and has ignored long standing practice in working with the media within the bounds of the First Amendment."
Christophe Deloire of Reporters Without Borders called the incident "a flagrant violation of constitutional guarantees" and called for a congressional probe.
The American Civil Liberties Union called the action an assault on freedom of the press: "The media's purpose is to keep the public informed and it should be free to do so without the threat of unwarranted surveillance," said Laura Murphy, director of the US civil rights group's Washington legislative office.
The US attorney's office in Washington, part of the Justice Department, in a statement sent to AFP, did not address the AP complaint but said it follows specific laws and regulations in seeking records of media organizations.