WASHINGTON -- Lawyers and news executives on Tuesday questioned whether the Justice Department met rigorous legal requirements before taking the rare step of secretly obtaining the home phone records of an Associated Press reporter.
The Justice Department had a legal obligation to take a number of investigative steps before subpoenaing the phone records of reporter John Solomon, they said.
"We have directed our counsel to make a formal demand that the Justice Department explain the process and reasoning used to secretly obtain a reporter's telephone records," said AP executive editor Jonathan P. Wolman. "We know of nothing that comes close to justifying such a gross invasion of the editorial process."
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc. wrote letters of protest to Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Quoting unidentified law enforcement officials, the AP ran a story May 4 about a federal wiretap in 1996 that captured Sen. Robert Torricelli discussing campaign donations. Law enforcement officials can be prosecuted for leaking information obtained under federal wiretaps.
Solomon's incoming and outgoing telephone records from May 2-7 were subpoenaed. The Justice Department received the reporter's phone records on May 14.
"It appears to me that the Justice Department has seriously overreacted in search of a leak," said Tim J. McGuire, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and editor of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.
"The case makes me wonder if seizing phone records has become a first resort rather than last resort. ASNE stands ready to help AP in any legal action it decides to take."
"There has been no change in the Department of Justice's policy or procedures regarding the issuance of subpoenas pertaining to the news media," said Justice Department spokeswoman Susan Dryden.
The Code of Federal Regulations says all reasonable alternatives should be taken before authorities consider a subpoena of a reporter's telephone records.
A deputy of former Whitewater prosecutor Ken Starr, Solomon L. Wisenberg, questioned why the Justice Department moved so quickly.
"The Justice Department is obligated to pursue reasonable alternative investigatory steps," Wisenberg said in an interview.
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