Free press is vital to all, AP chief tells Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce

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Posted: Friday, February 21, 2014 12:00 am

A free press isn't a threat to national security but instead strengthens the United States at home and abroad, the head of the Associated Press told area businesspeople Thursday.

“We don't think it's a trade-off between national security and a free press,” said Gary Pruitt, who oversees a nonprofit network that operates in 110 countries. “That's a false choice. We can be stronger and more secure with a free press.”

Fresh off assignment at the Sochi Olympic Games, Pruitt was the speaker for the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce's annual meeting, which drew about 900 to the CenturyLink Center Omaha.

He said he hoped to shed light on the value an unrestrained press has to corporate leaders and other citizens.

Driving home that point, the 13th chief executive of the 168-year-old news service offered an insider's view of what happened when his organization broke a major story on a failed plot by an al-Qaida affiliate to destroy an airliner headed for the U.S. The CIA-thwarted attack, planned for the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden's killing, was met by a U.S. Department of Justice-led seizure of reporter phone records to ferret out the information leak.

The secret, unprecedented and sloppy sweep, as Pruitt described it, not only intimidated government sources from talking about other events, but also violated the protective zone promised to journalists by the First Amendment.

AP held the plot story for five days, Pruitt said, until the White House said its security concerns had been allayed. Shortly after publication in May 2012, the Justice Department announced its start of the leak probe. But not until a year later — too late to fight the subpoena in court — did AP get notice from the Justice Department that it had earlier seized about two months of reporter phone records.

While Pruitt didn't dispute the government's right to identify leaks of classified information, he said the federal government's rules called for demands to be as narrowly drawn as possible. He said the sweep went beyond the reporters on the story, netting thousands of calls and general AP phones in various cities.

The silver lining, Pruitt said, was that public outrage and White House support led to swift update of 1970s-era Justice Department rules that, had they been in place today, likely would have avoided the seizure.

Also pending before Congress is a national shield law similar to those protecting reporters in 40 states, including Nebraska. And the U.S. government made clear for the first time that reporters can't be prosecuted in national security leak cases. “It's nice to know its not a crime of the U.S. to commit journalism.”

Pruitt said technological advances that expand the government's monitoring capabilities make a free and diligent press even more vital. Without it, he said, “You only know what the government wants you to know.”

His message resonated with people like Corey DeJong of AIM and Chris Hernandez of Eakes Office Plus. DeJong had reservations about the media's seemingly unbalanced load of “bad news” but was left thinking “the media gets a bad rap.”

Hernandez said she's an advocate of personal privacy but felt “enlightened” by the AP story. “The truth is as important as privacy. We're talking about knowing the truth about what's going on in our country.”

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