Transcript: Q&A with AP CEO Gary Pruitt on the Justice Department’s subpoena of AP phone records

Partial transcript of Q&A with Gary Pruitt, President and CEO of the Associated Press, on the Justice Department’s subpoena of AP reporters’ phone records. Pruitt’s speech was delivered at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on June 19, 2013.

Question:
You said in your remarks that the DOJ violated its own rules, and of course you talked about the efforts right now to update those rules. Do you believe that their revisions will make a difference in how they carry out their practices?

Gary Pruitt, President and CEO of the Associated Press:
You know, I sure hope they do. I can tell you that over the past four decades, the greatest protection afforded reporters in this area has been through these guidelines, through these Department of Justice regulations. And so that’s why it is the focus of AP going forward and other news organizations that they be updated and they be improved. And so I think it was appropriate that the President asked the Attorney General to look at these regulations and come forward with the improvements and recommendations. So all of us in the media and everyone in the country should look with interest upon what happens on July 12th and what improvements and updates to those regulations – what those regulations, how they’re updated, and we’re extremely hopeful that they can provide clearer guidance to the Justice Department and increased protection to the media, especially given the strained interpretation that this Justice Department is applying to those rules.

Question:
What in the rules can guarantee that this won’t happen again?

Gary Pruitt, President and CEO of the Associated Press:
Well, we believe that the rules were violated in this case, and the department believes they weren’t and they went ahead in secret and got their way. Right? They swept up all the records, told us about them up to 90 days later. And if they can do that, then their perspective will always prevail. We need a check on that, and the check is another branch of the government – the courts. And that’s why we need the notice so we can negotiate with them, and that’s what the rules contemplate. And only under exceptional cases can they go in secret.

But under their reasoning, as I said, every case is that exceptional case – “We don’t want to tip off the leaker”. Even a public investigation? Give me a break! And so we want the rules clarified so that they’re clear that the press will get notice and that DOJ cannot cite that exception to avoid it. And we think that will provide much greater protection.

We could have helped them clean up the subpoena. Old, vacated, defunct phone numbers. We could have helped in that regard. If they didn’t agree, a court could have decided. None of that was able to happen in this case because of their interpretation of the rules.

I think they can be improved in a way that will improve the situation going forward for all of us.

Question:
Do you consider this administration’s response to the news media any different from other administrations?

Gary Pruitt, President and CEO of the Associated Press:
No. [Audience laughter]

Question:
Then why is it getting more attention now and why are we seeing these highly publicized instances?

Gary Pruitt, President and CEO of the Associated Press:
Well, this administration has been more aggressive in going after leakers than other administrations. So it has more active leak investigations going on. But this administration came in on a platform of transparency and more access. Unfortunately, like past administrations, it hasn’t fully lived up to that promise.

Question:
At any time did the federal government threaten any form of retaliation against the AP for advancing the terrorism story in question either directly or indirectly?

Gary Pruitt, President and CEO of the Associated Press:
No. Nothing like that happened. AP alone got this scoop. It was a very significant news story and obviously a sensitive news story and AP went to the administration and talked to them about it. And the administration asked us to hold the story out of national security concerns, and we did. And AP does not want to endanger anyone’s life or endanger the national security, and so we always strive to act responsibly and we did in this case. And only after we had heard from two parts of the government that the national security risk had passed did we run the story.

Now, the White House asked us to hold the story one more day but not for national security reasons. They were going to announce the thwarted plot the next day and we didn’t feel we should hold the story for that reason, and so we released the story.

But we didn’t hear from either that in any way the national security was compromised nor did we get push back from them for running the story. We didn’t hear anything until a year later when we found out that our records got swept up as part of the leak investigation. But we didn’t hear any push back from them at that time.

Question:
If the government didn’t state in detail why it didn’t want the story published, what did AP think was the reason at the time?

Gary Pruitt, President and CEO of the Associated Press:
You know, I wasn’t involved in those conversations. So I can tell you that we did hear that it potentially could jeopardize safety and national security if we went with the story at that time. And that seemed right and we didn’t want to jeopardize that – we didn’t want to create those problems, and so we waited and we waited until we got reassurances that security had passed, the operation was no longer underway and that then there was no security risk in running the story. So I don’t know the details of those particular conversations but that was the judgment that was made and it was not criticized by the government or the administration at that time. As I said, they preferred we were to hold it one more day because they were going to announce it. I guess they would have preferred us to wait one more day. We didn’t do that but that had nothing to do with national security.

Question:
When the AP ran this story, did it have any inkling that the alleged bomber was a double agent?

Gary Pruitt, President and CEO of the Associated Press:
So, now we’re getting into some details that are sensitive. So AP had a sense that there was a double agent involved here but did not report that and in part out of concern that perhaps this could be an issue and could be a safety issue.

After AP released the story and it broke, the White House was very aggressive in talking about this story. John Brennan talked to the media. He was head of counter-terrorism at the time before heading up CIA, and he disclosed that the CIA had internal control of the situation. That implication allowed others to draw conclusion that there was a spy, there was a double agent, and then it was widely reported by others and including follow-ups by the AP that there was indeed a double agent.

But AP did not disclose the fact that a double agent was involved in its news story. The fact of the internal control only came from the administration and then was reported more widely by other news organizations.

Question:
If this was really about when the story was published not whether, why do you think that now as Attorney General Holder has said that they consider this now to be one of the most dangerous leaks ever?

Gary Pruitt, President and CEO of the Associated Press:
That’s a really good question. [Audience laughter] I don’t know the answer! I have that same question. Maybe he’ll come here and speak and answer that question for you.

Question:
The invitation is pending. Has AP changed its news-gathering methods as a result of the situation with the DOJ?

Gary Pruitt, President and CEO of the Associated Press:
Short answer is no but we are looking at our contracts very carefully with our phone service providers. We’re making sure that we can try to get as much notice as possible of subpoenas, that you know we have as much knowledge of how we can protect our records. We’re looking, of course, at as much encryption and security issues as we can build into our Internet – online activities. We’re doing that generally because of hackers. And so we’re looking very vigilantly at protecting our news-gathering efforts and protecting anonymity of sources and protection of our records. We’re probably doing that more than we’ve ever done before, and that is like an arms race and that will continue going on forever.

I think we are having to deal with sources a little differently who are anxious about having their phone number associated with the Associated Press, and I can tell you that that could be going on at your news organization right now today and you don’t know it but you’ll find out 90 days later potentially. You’ll get a nice surprise in the mail like we did. And so that goes on. And so I think there are fewer non-official sources. I think there’s more reluctance on some sources. It may require more personal meetings. But we also know the Department of Justice could follow reporters and what they’re doing on foot as well.

And so, you know, journalism goes on. But we will do our best to make sure we can protect our sources and still get the stories by every means possible.

Question:
Have you thought about asking your service provider to push back on the government when the company has reason to believe that a request may violate the law?

Gary Pruitt, President and CEO of the Associated Press:
Yes. So, the phone service providers when they get subpoenas like this from the government, they comply and they’re required to comply. And the government also notifies them not to notify us. And so they are not put in a comfortable position.

So the answer to this is not in trying to – and they’ve got to abide by the government, ok? So the answer to this is not in getting a better contract with Verizon. It can help. But that’s not the answer. The answer is getting better guidelines at the Department of Justice.

Question:
What do you think about the public’s reaction to all this? Does the general public outside of the media community understand what this means?

Gary Pruitt, President and CEO of the Associated Press:
I think the reaction has been incredibly gratifying to this story. I got to tell you, I didn’t expect it to be this big a story. I knew it would be news story. I didn’t think it would be this big a story.

Now, it could have been for several reasons. Oh, it’s the third scandal with Benghazi and IRS and all that. There may have been a lot of reasons for it. But it got more attention than I thought it would because I thought maybe it would be regarded as a pure press issue.

But I was very pleased that the American public saw it as a broader issue – an issue of is the government harassing the media? Can this affect us? Does this affect us? Does it violate the First Amendment? That is a good debate to have. That is a good issue to surface in this country. And I was very pleased that it did.

I think the Justice Department, I suspect, was surprised by the reaction, and that may be the biggest protection we have against this happening again because I don’t think they want that backlash again. I sure hope not. And I hope it prevents them from doing this again. But we were pleased to see the reaction.

And I do think this has gotten traction worldwide – not always to the benefit of the United States, as I said in my speech. I think some countries around the world were surprised that this could go on in the United States and the AP is known around the world. This wasn’t a local newspaper. God love local newspapers. But the Associated Press is worldwide. And when countries around the world and press agencies around the world heard that the U.S. government was doing this AP, they were shocked, they were surprised. We received an enormous outpouring of support and surprise that the U.S. government could do this.

So we’ve been pleased by it. I was surprised by the – little surprised that it became such a major story but was very pleased that it was, has been, and as I said, I’m hoping that will act as a preventive for future actions by the Justice Department.

Question:
How to better engage and mobilize the public? You said that they are engaged and mobilized but everything is fleeting. The questioner notes calls for arrest of Guardian and Washington Post journalists from a few members of Congress. How do you keep this story at the forefront of public attention?

Gary Pruitt, President and CEO of the Associated Press:
I know some of the polls say it doesn’t resonate with the public like the IRS scandal does, and that’s not surprising. You know? Come on. The IRS will resonate with everyone in a different way. But I think it’s important for the media to point out how this affects the people not just the media. And it’s not just about the media but it is about holding the government accountable. The government has never been more powerful. Technology gives the government power that it could never dream of before. But that’s all the more reason why the press needs to be stronger as well because we are the surrogate of the people. That’s the only way the public will be informed. And I think we have to couch our arguments, our approach, and our position in terms of the people, and why it’s important for them.

And yes, these stories do come and go but I’ll tell you something: When people sense that the government is overreaching and it offends their sensibilities, they rise up, they speak up, and that happened here.

And I was wrong because I thought “Oh, this will be not so big a story.” Boy, I was wrong and it was great. And this did resonate and I think this will have an impact. And if this happens again, it will resonate further.

So let’s hope that the silver lining from this is that we’ll get better updated and improved guidelines from the Justice Department that will get a shield law, that will get a recognition that a reporter’s activities are not criminalized, and that we will therefore have freer society.

Question:
Should reporters be objective, impartial, and neutral when it comes to covering press freedom? As news organizations, should we be doing more to push back against this type of surveillance?

Gary Pruitt, President and CEO of the Associated Press:
AP is a non-profit news organization. It does not endorse candidates. It does not have editorial positions. It doesn’t express opinions. What AP does is cover the news as straight, as objectively as possible, day in and day out, and we will always do that. And we should do that on every topic, including press freedom issues. And if we don’t, we will lose credibility. So our stake is clear.

Now, on Op-Ed page, on editorial pages, that’s different. And I think that that’s a place for opinions and a marketplace of ideas and arguing ever which way.

The Justice Department deserves their say. They disagree with me. Great, you know? That’s okay. We think they’re wrong and we’ll state it clearly.

And so I think the media needs to speak up for itself, needs to push for a shield law, needs to push for changes in the regulations, needs to be active in that regard, but should absolutely cover it straight and objectively and not lose that. ‘Cause I think that will actually erode our credibility and it will look self-interested.

Question:
If the Department of Justice violated so many of its own rules, why did it even bother to tell AP it had done this in the first place?

Gary Pruitt, President and CEO of the Associated Press:
It had to. The law requires them to notify us after they do this. So they can sweep it up secretly but they can wait up to 90 days before they tell us about it. So we don’t know when they captured these phone records. We’re not sure. But we know that it was – should have been within 90 days when we got the notice. So we got it on May 10th – so it was sometime in the three months prior to that that they got the toll records. So they had to do it. So they knew it would be public eventually but it got – it was public after they had already obtained the records and we have lost all opportunity to try to narrow the focus of the subpoena or get a court involved to sort out how it should be – what the proper scope of that subpoena should be. So we lost all those opportunities. We got notice. As I said, can’t un-ring that bell.

Question:
Walter Pincus in his Washington Post column argued that because the story was a national security risk, it should not have been published. What do you think of his take on the story?

Gary Pruitt, President and CEO of the Associated Press:
I respect Walter Pincus as a reporter greatly. I think he’s wrong on this one. I think that we were very concerned about national security and we handled it responsibly and we were not criticized by the administration in releasing this story and running the story.

Do I think they were happy that we got the story? No.

Did they criticize us for somehow jeopardizing national security? No.

And I think if that comes up now over a year later, that’s more suspicious to me. But we did not hear that at the time. I think AP did act responsibly. The White House announced it the next day. I don’t know if the White House is going to announce – if the White House is going to announce that absent the AP story. I just don’t know.

Question:
If revealing classified information is a crime for a government employee who’s sworn to protect such information, why shouldn’t it be a crime for a reporter to publish it?

Gary Pruitt, President and CEO of the Associated Press:
This person has an elusive grasp of the First Amendment. Government employees – it is a crime, it is a specific crime for government employees to reveal classified information. This is a complicated issue, right? We all know information that the government has over-classified. There’s way too much information that’s classified. A lot of information that is classified that shouldn’t be classified. Some information is classified just because it’s embarrassing or they don’t want it out. So there’s a lot of over-classification that goes on. We all know it. The government acknowledges it.

And post-9/11 one of the criticisms was our intelligence information was silo’ed and that we needed to connect the dots and that we needed to have a more integrated intelligence network to prevent terrorism. So we did. And maybe it’s helped prevent terrorism. It could well be. But what it’s meant is millions of people have access to classified information – millions. Almost a million contractors – not even federal employees – have access to confidential information, and low-level people have access to confidential information. Privates in the military can release loads of information to WikiLeaks. Government contractors that dropped out of high school can release massive amounts of information. That’s going to happen when you’ve got three million people having classified clearance, you’re going to have leakers. It’s inevitable. It’s going to keep happening.

And so, like I said, I don’t challenge the government’s right to pursue these investigations. They have that right. It’s a complicated issue. We’re not taking a position on that one way or the other.

The administration, the Justice Department sorts that out for themselves. They make their own determinations as to what leak investigations they’re going to pursue.

Our quibble in this case was how they went about it – how they conducted that investigation. And that’s what we want to keep the focus on. It’s a free press issue for us.

And when a journalist does his or her job, our job is to ask questions, to find out information. And when we find out that information and we’re doing our jobs, that should not be a crime. We agree with President Obama when he said that. We agree with the Attorney General when he said that. In fact, we think that should be clear in these guidelines and in their rules…We think that’s embedded in the First Amendment that journalists doing their job, finding out information, that should not be a crime. In fact, that’s what we rely on to hold government accountable. That’s what we rely on to have a free press so that we can be an informed public, so that we can have a robust debate about the marketplace of ideas. The United States is not afraid of that. We shouldn’t become afraid of that.

The United States should welcome that, welcome those debates. As the President said he welcomes this debate – okay, we do too. So let’s have that debate and as a society decide on it. But you can’t have the debate if you don’t have information. We need journalists to do their jobs without fear of being prosecuted for doing their jobs. Because then not only would our sources be intimidated but the journalists will be intimidated. I don’t want to live in that country.

Question:
Do you know if any of the sources for the story in question have been punished by the government?

Gary Pruitt, President and CEO of the Associated Press:
I don’t know who the source or the sources were of our story, and I have no idea of their status. But the investigation is ongoing so I know that there hasn’t been any punishment, you know, formal charges brought or anything like that. I’m sure we’ll know when and if they are.

Question:
Did your reporting do any harm to the double agent and do you care about whether it did?

Gary Pruitt, President and CEO of the Associated Press:
Yeah, of course we care! We don’t want our reporting to jeopardize people’s security, people’s safety, or national security, and we were very careful in this case to make sure we didn’t. Again, we didn’t publish the story until the administration – two parts of the government told us that national security issues have passed – only then did we run the story – release the story. And we did not reveal that the double agent was involved and we did not hear from the administration or the intelligence community that there was any risk to the double agent because of our story. And if there had been, I’m sure we would have heard about it; I’m sure they would have told us and probably that was the reason they wanted us to hold it. I don’t know but that probably was and we did.

Question:
You mentioned a similar situation with Mr. Rosen at Fox News. How do you compare what’s happened there with what’s happened at AP?

Gary Pruitt, President and CEO of the Associated Press:
I think in some ways I think they’re similar. I think in some ways ours is worse and in some ways that situation is worse.

I think ours was broader, you know, broader sweep up of material as far as I know. Ours was a very broad over-reaching sweeping gathering of news-gathering information in secret.

I think what the Justice Department did in the Rosen case was more offensive in the sense that they put in a subpoena for a search warrant that he was a co-conspirator under the Espionage Act, in other words that he may have been violating the Espionage Act and be criminal for his actions, which were acting as a journalist. As I said, we don’t think people should be prosecuted for committing journalism. And given the degree of what they went after and how they tracked him and the meetings he had, et cetera, I think there was more searching or a deeper investigation into his particular activities. So in that sense, it was more troubling.

So I think there were two different cases – both raise substantial issues.

Question:
You’re pointing to the importance of a free press, investigative journalism, and the role of the press. Yet the economics of the news business are unfortunately going in the other direction, with less money to spend on investigative projects…What’s ahead?

Gary Pruitt, President and CEO of the Associated Press:
I think it has become more difficult because the economics of news-gathering has become more strained. Traditional media has less resources to devote to important news-gathering. That’s the reality. But I can tell you that the work remains excellent and there are still thousands of journalists doing high quality work throughout the United States, many here in Washington. So while I think that it’s a concern, I think it’s a greater concern locally where local newspapers and TV stations and radio stations may have fewer resources available to cover local news, to cover local issues, to have investigative reporting locally. I think that’s a bigger issue than nationally. I think there is a still a strong, robust reporting going on in the nation’s capital. But it is a concern. I’m hopeful that as traditional media builds its digital revenues that it can sustain the news-gathering and investigative reporting that is so essential to the country. And I’m hopeful about that and we’ll have to see how it goes. But it is something that, you know, is a concern as we see resources for news-gathering decline.

Question:
Lots of people would like to know your take on the Edward Snowden. Do you consider him a whistleblower, a leaker? Where is he on the continuum?

Gary Pruitt, President and CEO of the Associated Press:
You know, I’m not going to speak to that because if I do that sort of becomes what gets reported about what I said here today. And my opinion of Edward Snowden, frankly, is not that important and I don’t regard it as relevant to the topic that I’m speaking today.

As I said, our quibble is how this investigation was conducted and trying to avoid it from happening again. And my particular view of one particular person or another is not terribly relevant.

I would say that I would agree with President Obama in that I welcome that debate. I think it could be a healthy debate for the country. But our issue today and the issue for AP – you know, AP is used to covering the news. We’re used to covering the biggest news stories in the world. We’re not used to being the news story. And so it’s not entirely comfortable for us. But we’re doing our best to cover it objectively and it’s up to me then to speak and articulate AP’s position here and what we think will happen and I will do that but we also understand that it’s not our position to go out and mouth off about every issue.

Question:
This questioner asks whether you think major media outlets have sufficiently scrutinized the Obama administration’s targeting of whistleblowers and whether there’s any corollary between that reporting or lack thereof and what we’re seeing now with the media?

Gary Pruitt, President and CEO of the Associated Press:
I’m not sure. I think that because of the AP issue and the Fox News issue, there has been greater awareness and more focus on the Obama administration’s aggressive stance towards leakers. And I think that that is more well-known and I think that it has gotten more scrutiny since then. I think it may not have gotten much attention before. I think it will get more attention now as a result of these cases, especially if they continue to impinge on First Amendment rights.

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