On Monday night's edition of "The Rachel Maddow Show," host Rachel Maddow discussed the Justice Department's decision to seize the phone records of reporters from the Associated Press.
After giving a run-down of the global headlines of the day, and calling Monday "one of those days where the news "was breaking like waves in the ocean. Just one thing after the other," Maddow explained the revelation yesterday that the Justice Department has been spying on Associated Press reporters.
"In a big, widespread, open-ended way that the AP got no notice about," she said, until they received a letter from the Department of Justice explaining that the department had seized two months' worth of phone records for more than 20 phone lines used by the AP.
The AP responded angrily, sending a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, director of the Justice Department, that read, in part, "There can be no possible justification for such an over-broad collection of telephone communications of the Associated Press and its reporters. The records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the news gathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to the news gathering operations and disclose information about AP's activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know."
The Justice Department gave no explanation in its letter as to why the five reporters and one editor who were targeted for surveillance were chosen, but Maddow said that by "connecting the dots," you can see that all of them contributed to a report last year that the CIA had infiltrated an al-Qaeda plot to blow up an airliner.
The CIA reportedly managed to plant an operative at the heart of a plot to create a second underwear bomb like the one used in the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a U.S. bound plane in 2009. When the AP reported on the story, they did not report on the existence of an informant, but the CIA wanted to know, exactly, how the AP got this story and who revealed the information to them.
The Justice Department considered the story to be a product of a leak of confidential information, and as such began to pursue a criminal case against the leaker. This was the justification offered to the AP as to why its phone records had been seized wholesale.
"And now the AP reporters and editor who broke that story as well as the whole headquarters in New York and Washington and Hartford, Connecticut have all been subject to an unprecedented, broad, weeks-long spying effort by the Justice Department that they were not told about until after the fact," said Maddow. "We've never really heard of anything like this before."
She then welcomed Michael Isikoff of NBC news to the program, asking him, "Is this legal? Can you say in an uncomplicated way this is legal? Is it unprecedented? When do we get an explanation and from whom should we expect it?"
Isikoff said that the action by the Justice Department is actually a part of a trend, but what hasn't been seen before is the kind of indiscriminate "Dragnet" approach to seizing so much data at once. Normally the department would simply subpoena the phone records of a particular reporter or editor, rather than the wholesale monitoring of 20 separate phone lines.
The Department of Justice, he said, is technically within its rights to seize any data it wants in pursuit of a criminal investigation, but that "watchdog groups tonight and freedom of the press groups are saying this is positively Nixonian. They have not seen a precedent for this in decades."
Watch the clip, embedded via MSNBC, below: