New York Times sues Ashcroft

NEW YORK – The New York Times sued Attorney General JohnAshcroft on Tuesday, seeking to block the Justice Department fromobtaining records of telephone calls between two veteranjournalists and their confidential sources.

The lawsuit said the Justice Department was “on the verge” ofgetting records as part of a probe aimed at learning the identityof government employees who may have provided information to thenewspaper. It asked a judge to intervene.

The paper said the government intends to get the records, whichreflect confidential communications between the journalists PhilipShenon and Judith Miller and their sources, from third partiesunlikely to be interested in challenging its authority.

The lawsuit said the Justice Department has advised the Timesthat it plans to obtain records of all telephone calls by Shenonand Miller for 20 days in the months immediately following theSept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The lawsuit said the scope of the government’s demand fortelephone records meant that the records would expose theidentities of dozens of confidential sources used by the reportersfor an array of articles about Sept. 11, the government’s handlingof continued threats from al-Qaida and the war in Iraq.

A telephone message left with a government spokeswoman forcomment was not immediately returned Tuesday.

George Freeman, a lawyer for the Times, said most of the sourceshad no connection to the government’s probe.

“We are very troubled at this brazen intrusion into ourrelationship with our sources, which is unconstitutional andendangers our free press,” he said.

Floyd Abrams, the attorney who filed the lawsuit in U.S.District Court in Manhattan, said it was “a very dangerous andunprecedented notion” for the Justice Department to seek telephonerecords from third parties rather than the Times.

“In this case, we’re talking about the potential compromising ofliterally dozens of sources because telephone records relate to anenormous array of stories,” he said. “It would threaten the abilityof all journalists to promise confidentiality to theirsources.”

Shenon was one of two Times reporters sent into combat with U.S.troops during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Since the fall of 2001, hehas reported on homeland security, terrorism and the work of theSept. 11 commission.

Miller, who won a Pulitzer Price for her January 2001 series onOsama bin Laden and al-Qaida, has reported extensively for theTimes on national security issues, especially terrorism, the MiddleEast and weapons of mass destruction.

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, a Chicago special prosecutorappointed to investigate government leaks, asked the Times inAugust 2002 and again in July to produce Shenon and Miller forinterviews and to produce records of their calls, the lawsuitsaid.

He threatened to obtain telephone records from third parties ifthe Times did not cooperate, the suit said. In a letter datedFriday, Deputy Attorney General James Comey said that according tothe lawsuit the Justice Department had decided it was “now obligedto proceed” to obtain the records.