The DOJ's public information arm isn't sure whether it's been collecting our phone data or not

  • Your subpoena documents are in another castle.
Your subpoena documents are in another castle. (Baltimore Sun file photo…)
August 09, 2013

This week, The Baltimore Sun received a response to its FOIA query for subpoena requests against its reporters' phone records.

The United States Department of Justice Office of Information Policy was the target of the original Sun query, which asked for for records pertaining to any subpoena requests that the Department of Justice made for telephone records of Baltimore Sun or Tribune Company employees from 2000 to 2010.

The response, given more than a month after the DOJ's initial, self-assigned deadline, indicates that such records are distributed across many offices and systems, each of which must be FOIA'd individually. The response further stated that the newspaper's best hope of receiving documents is to contact another office within the justice department.

Requests' context

The query by The Baltimore Sun was meant as a follow-up to a May incident. At that time, the Associated Press had first announced that several of its reporters had been secretly tracked by the Justice Department in an attempt to learn about the journalists' sources. It was later reported that the data collection also extended to reporters from Fox News.

Those revelations were soon overshadowed by a more general surveillance scandal involving the Maryland-based National Security Agency, which is now believed to be monitoring most aspects of Internet users' traffic, along with significant portions of American phone metadata.

The initial NSA revelations, which were leaked by former Marylander Edward Snowden to British newspaper The Guardian, led to public protests around the country on Independence Day.

The public outcry was not enough to spur successful Congressional action, however: A bipartisan House coalition in late July fell just short of the support needed to curtail NSA collection of phone records.

Worth a follow-up

All of that off-the-books surveillance by an intelligence agency could make The Sun's request through the Justice Department seem quaint. That perception would be be mistaken, according to Steven Aftergood, who leads the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy. He argues that official targeting of reporters for surveillance can be even more threatening than a broad collection of data, if that broad data is discarded.

"Even routine, sweeping collection of telephone metadata does not mean that we are living in a panopticon or a police state," Aftergood wrote in an email to a Sun staffer last month.

"Domestic surveillance did not provide any advance warning of the Boston Marathon bombing, or of the Snowden leaks. So the ability of the press to report freely and effectively on public affairs remains a cornerstone of our society, but one that needs to be actively protected."

If the FOIA request for subpoena records is re-submitted to the suggested office, The Sun will probably have to narrow the scope of the request in order to get a timely response, according to Bill Reader, who teaches journalism at Ohio University.

"If you have it within three years, consider yourself lucky," he said Tuesday on hearing about the scope of the original request.

"If you have to wait five years, consider it normal."

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