“A Full Two Month Period” that Covers John Brennan’s Entire Drone Propaganda Campaign

In his letter to Eric Holder, AP’s President Gary Pruitt emphasized how inexcusably overbroad the call record seizure had been.

Last Friday afternoon, AP General Counsel Laura Malone received a letter from the office of United States Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. advising that, at some unidentified time earlier this year, the Department obtained telephone toll records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to the AP and its journalists. The records that were secretly obtained cover a full two-month period in early 2012 and, at least as described in Mr. Machen’s letter, include all such records for, among other phone lines, an AP general phone number in New York City as well as AP bureaus in New York City, Washington, D.C., Hartford, Connecticut, and at the House of Representatives. This action was taken without advance notice to AP or to any of the affected journalists, and even after the fact no notice has been sent to individual journalists whose home phones and cell phone records were seized by the Department. [my emphasis]

AP’s most recent story on the seizure seems to suggest that “full two-month period” spanned April and May of last year.

In all, the government seized the records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists in April and May of 2012.

If so, it means the government grabbed phone records for Adam Goldman,  Matt Apuzzo, Kimberly Dozier, Eileen Sullivan, and Alan Fram for three weeks after (and five weeks before) the UndieBomb 2.0 story Goldman and Apuzzo by-lined.

That would mean they’d get the sources for this Kimberly Dozier story published May 21 which starts,

White House counterterror chief John Brennan has seized the lead in guiding the debate on which terror leaders will be targeted for drone attacks or raids, establishing a new procedure to vet both military and CIA targets.

The move concentrates power over the use of lethal U.S. force outside war zones at the White House.

The process, which is about a month old, means Brennan’s staff consults the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies as to who should go on the list, making a previous military-run review process in place since 2009 less relevant, according to two current and three former U.S. officials aware of the evolution in how the government targets terrorists.

Within 10 days of the time Dozier published that story, John Brennan had rolled out an enormous propaganda campaign — based on descriptions of the drone targeting process that Brennan’s power grab had replaced, not the new drone targeting process — that suckered almost everyone commenting on drones that drone targeting retained its previous, more deliberative, targeting process, the one Brennan had just changed.

And that propaganda campaign, in turn, hid another apparent detail: that UndieBomb 2.0, a Saudi sting had actually occurred earlier in April, and that UndieBomb 2.0 preceded and perhaps justified the signature strikes done at the behest of the Yemenis (or more likely the Saudis).

April 18: Greg Miller first reports on debate over signature strikes

Around April 20: UndieBomb 2.0 device recovered

Around April 22: John Brennan takes over drone targeting from JSOC

April 22: Drone strike that–WSJ reports, “Intelligence analysts [worked] to identify those killed” after the fact, suggesting possible signature strike

April 24: Robert Mueller in Yemen for 45 minute meeting, presumably to pick up UndieBomb

April 25: WSJ reports that Obama approved use of signature strikes

April 30: John Brennan gives speech, purportedly bringing new transparency to drone program, without addressing signature strikes

May 6: Fahd al-Quso killed

May 7: AP reports on UndieBomb 2.0

May 8: ABC reports UndieBomb 2.0 was Saudi-run infiltrator

May 15: Drone strike in Jaar kills a number of civilians

Now, frankly, I think the witch hunt response to the UndieBomb 2.0 plot was mostly just an excuse to start investigating the AP, though it did lead John Brennan to make it clear that it was a Saudi-manufactured plot in the first place.

But the response to that Dozier article, which provided the final piece of evidence for the timeline above showing Brennan grabbed control of drone targeting at roughly the moment we started signature strikes in Yemen, was more dramatic, at least in terms of the breathtaking propaganda the White House rolled out to pretend the drone strikes were more orderly than they actually were.

I’m guessing, but when Pruitt says this,

These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP’s newsgathering operations, and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.

I’m guessing he might have other AP stories in mind.

I know I’m as least as worried about DOJ targeting Dozier’s sources, who revealed a critical detail of how illegal the drone program was, as I am about the original UndieBomb 2.0 story.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

31 replies
  1. phred says:

    How convenient that the FISA Amendments Act retroactively pardoned criminal collusion between the telcos and the government, ensuring such collusion would continue.

    Looks like the 1st amendment is about to follow the 4th into oblivion.

  2. Snoopdido says:

    If there are national security reporters of the mainstream media reading here (I’m talking to you Mark Mazzetti, Charlie Savage, Scott Shane, Greg Miller, Siobhan Gorman as well as all of the AP journalists targeted) be sure to give Emptywheel the credit for sussing out the fact that the US government’s massive grab of the AP phone records was NOT tied to just the AP’s story about UndieBomb 2.0.

    Which begs the question of just what are the limits to District of Columbia United States Attorney Ronald C. Machen’s criminal investigation? None as far as I can see.

  3. emptywheel says:

    @Snoopdido: That’s why I’m curious that we’re hearing nothing from WaPo, NYT, and ABC.

    Because ABC first reported the Saudi operative part of the same story (though we know that Richard Clarke was the source for that), and NYT and WaPo had important parts of the drone story that was also reportedly being investigated.

  4. Snoopdido says:

    @emptywheel: I just was re-reading the Washington Post story bylined by Sudarsan Raghavan, Peter Finn and Greg Miller from May 09, 2012 (http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-05-09/world/35456649_1_underwear-bomb-bomb-plot-al-qaeda).

    Yes, and it sure has a lot of details about the UndieBomb 2.0 operation that one would presume were highly classified being revealed by both current and former US intelligence officials.

    Maybe the letters to the other news organizations are in the mail?

  5. Snoopdido says:

    @emptywheel: I also want to congratulate you from getting the scoop on the mainstream media that the massive grab of AP phone records has to be about more than just about UndieBomb 2.0 reporting.

    I don’t think mainstream media journalists have yet caught on to the importance of the April phone record grab.

  6. orionATL says:

    some years ago, back-in-the-bush, ap was one of the loud trumpeteers for the american invasion and vivisection of iraq.


    – i don’t know the nether world of big-time journalism, but might ap be thought to have a party bias that is being challenged?


    – might this be a counter to the republican’s benghazi forever campaign, with the doj looking for republican congressmen or staff who leaked info, or for leaks by petraeus or surrogates?

    – why are we learning about this now rather than, say, as part of a gj indictment?

    – what’s the admin’s next step? is there one? or is this a warning (or a bluff) ?

  7. P J Evans says:

    This has been picked up over at the Great Orange Satan, so expect incoming (including trolls).

  8. Snoopdido says:

    From the Wall Street Journal (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324715704578481461374133612.html):

    “The Justice Department seized records of 20 separate phone lines used by reporters or editors for the Associated Press, in a move that officials familiar with the case said was intended to gather information for a leak investigation involving a May 2012 AP story about a counterterrorism operation in Yemen.”

    From a Hill article (http://thehill.com/blogs/hillicon-valley/technology/299403-feds-seize-reporters-phone-records):

    “Goodlatte said he planned to ask Holder “pointed questions” about the AP records on Wednesday when the attorney general is slated to testify during a general Judiciary oversight hearing.

    “Any abridgement of the First Amendment right to the freedom of the press is very concerning,” said Goodlatte in a statement.

    “The House Judiciary Committee will thoroughly investigate this issue and will also ask Attorney General Eric Holder pointed questions about it at Wednesday’s oversight hearing,” he said.”

    Based on what Emptywheel has documented here, the Justice Department is going to have to explain why the AP journalists phone records from both work and home from April 2012 are somehow relevant to a event that didn’t occur until May 2012.

  9. orionATL says:

    the remarkably quickly made and very loud bleating i hear from the likes of john boner, esq. and goodlatte, convince me that that we are likely watching political retaliation on top of retaliation scenario.

    neither of these men give a rat’s ass about that nicety termed “first amendment freedoms” unless it is in their interest to do so – nor, for that matter, does our prez (or his successor).

    so i’d guess we will suddenly have a truce about benghazi.

    or we will find out which republicans in the congress or the national security establishment leaked the info to the ap.

    this shopuld be fun to watch – except…

    of course, the violated “nicety” which should apply in all such newsgathering situations. but george bush broke the 200+ year old spell when he termed the constitution of the united states “just a god-damned piece of paper”.

    what we are witnessing with the fully bi-partisan security-trumps-citizen’s-constitutional-rights movement in the congress and the executive since september 2001,

    is the complete dissolution of the compact for governing which we made in 1785.

    the destruction of that compact has been extraordinarily swift and is now virtually complete.

  10. joanneleon says:

    @Snoopdido: Man, do I hate it when I have to agree with Boehner.

    “House Speaker John Boehner’s spokesman Michael Steel denounced the move. “The First Amendment is first for a reason. If the Obama Administration is going after reporters’ phone records, they better have a damned good explanation,” Steel said.”

    This whole thing really smells. What do they want? It has a paranoia feel to it. Or is it just an extension of the way they like to put the fear of god into whistleblowers, now extended to journalists and editors who don’t toe the line?

    I’m not sure exactly why but I’m also reminded of how the CIA drove the DOJ in the Kiriakou case, which Marcy wrote about here: CIA’s Torturers Get Their Scalp

  11. Snoopdido says:

    @joanneleon: It’s starting to look like the perfect storm is about to crash onto the shores of the Obama administration.

    After a year of Fox News bleating Benghazi, Benghazi, the rest of the media has decided to jump onboard. Couple that with story about the IRS targeting Tea party and other conservative groups, and now the massively overbroad grabbing of the AP phone records.

    If one were writing a novel or a screenplay about political bad news for an administration, nobody serious would pile all of this together at one time.

  12. Snoopdido says:

    Emptywheel, I just saw your tweet (https://twitter.com/emptywheel/status/334123103745626113 ) regarding DC’s USA, not EDVA’s USA.

    Perhaps a reason for the DC USA Ronald Machen is that all along the US government believed the source who leaked the information to the AP was Congressional (somebody on or a staffer from HPSCI?) and based in DC itself as opposed to somebody at the CIA in Virginia. Just a thought.

  13. Peterr says:

    Notice, please, that this disclosure comes several hours after Obama’s morning press conference. Imagine the scene if this came out before the press conference.

    Jay Carney better be wearing kevlar tomorrow.

  14. emptywheel says:

    @Snoopdido: Yeah, but the jurisdiction, esp for CIA and NSA things (remember, Rosenstein got the StuxNet one, which makes sense for NSA jurisdiction) is bc the judges there are familiar and, frankly, predisposed to the big NatSec client.

    Sure, DC can handle all that.

    It just seems weird, especially bc the GOP rightly noted how close Machen is to Holder (who of course approved drone program).

  15. Peterr says:

    @Snoopdido: From that piece at The Hill, the part that ought to worry the White House is at the end, after they recount GOP outrage:

    Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) also said he would be probing the issue further and looking into whether the government may have overstepped its bounds.

    “The burden is always on the government when they go after private information – especially information regarding the press or its confidential sources,” said Leahy in a statement. “I want to know more about this case, but on the face of it, I am concerned that the government may not have met that burden. I am very troubled by these allegations and want to hear the government’s explanation.”

    Bipartisanship! Just what Obama keeps asking for!!!

  16. Peterr says:

    @CTuttle: Indeed.

    Under the headline “Eric Holder Must Go,” Charlie Pierce gets theological right from the start:

    What in the several hundred names of god do these people think they’re doing?

    Then at the end, he goes back to God for the big finish:

    That [Jay Carney’s “the WH was not involved in this DOJ matter” denial] is all my arse. At the least, this was a counter-terrorism operation. (Why else would Brennan have been questioned already?). Which puts the whole business inside the White House. And you’d have to be a toddler or a fool to believe that Eric Holder could go off on his own and take as politically volatile a step as this. But, let us take the White House at its word. Eric Holder did this by himself. He should be gone. This moment. Not only is this constitutionally abhorrent, it is politically moronic. Nobody likes the press, I will grant you that, but the administration is soft if it thinks the public distrusts the press that much. And to have this genuinely chilling revelation emerge simultaneously with the Benghazi, Benghazi!, BENGHAZI! mummery and the IRS dumbassery is pretty much a full broadside below the water line of this administration’s credibility. Good god, this is going to be one long-ass summer.

    Amen, Mr. Pierce. Amen.

  17. CTuttle says:

    From G’Zilla and the ACLU…

    … The following statement can be attributed to Laura W. Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Washington Legislative Office:

    The media’s purpose is to keep the public informed and it should be free to do so without the threat of unwarranted surveillance. The Attorney General must explain the Justice Department’s actions to the public so that we can make sure this kind of press intimidation does not happen again.”

    The following statement can be attributed to Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project:

    Obtaining a broad range of telephone records in order to ferret out a government leaker is an unacceptable abuse of power. Freedom of the press is a pillar of our democracy, and that freedom often depends on confidential communications between reporters and their sources.”

  18. CTuttle says:

    Honestly, folks, is this the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, and, actually collapsed this House of Cards…? 8-(

  19. CTuttle says:

    @john francis lee: …… the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate is the font of desolation, division, death, and destruction worldwide…. Hard to argue with that succinct summation…! 8-(

  20. lefty665 says:

    Wash Post this morning asserts this is one of two operations launched together. The other was the investigation into Stuxnet revelations.

    What do we know about methods used in that investigation. Are there similarities? If not, why would the MO differ?

    Brennan figures highly in both. Coincidence or causality?

  21. bell says:

    can i ask a dumb question? why is AP being singled out? do they ever do this kind of thing to the nyt, or wapo or the wsj? or are those last ones all towing the government line so they get excluded?

  22. jonathan says:

    All this faux outrage seems so bizarre coming from a country the where the PATRIOT Act has been law for over a decade. Hundreds of thousands of National Security Letters have been issued – to libraries, stores, religious groups, individuals, and press organizations. The FBI identified its own regular and systematic abuse of tens of thousands of these NSLs. And the now-irrelevant FISA court has never denied a warrant to surveile. Hundreds of innocent people have been held in prison for over a decade without even being CHARGED with a crime.

    The country long ago decided that, as long as the activity is done under a thin pretense of ‘national security,’ NO Contitutional rights or protections apply AT ALL. You gave up on these rights years ago, on the logic that they only affected ‘terrorists.’

    Marcy, I get your outrage, and I share it. But what’s odd to me is all of the politicians and commentators acting shocked, SHOCKED, that gambling is going on at Rick’s.

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