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Justice Department Seized AP Phone Records to Track Government Leaks

May 14, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn to the other story the Obama administration is being criticized for, the collection of journalists’ phone records in the name of tracking down classified leaks.

The Associated Press says it was notified Friday that the Justice Department secretly subpoenaed records for more than 20 of its phone lines. The AP’s Kathleen Carroll says they listed outgoing calls from April and May of 2012.

KATHLEEN CARROLL, Associated Press: They haven’t told us what they’re looking for, and nor have they explained why we got no prior notice, which our lawyers tell us is not only customary, but required.

JUDY WOODRUFF: AP’s president and CEO, Gary Pruitt, sent a letter of protest to Attorney General Eric Holder. In it, he wrote: “There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications.”

He said it amounts to — quote — “a serious interference with AP’s constitutional right to gather and report the news.”

Pruitt demanded that DOJ return the records and destroy any copies. But this afternoon, Attorney General Holder said he had recused himself at the start of the probe. Instead, he said Deputy Attorney General James Cole authorized the subpoena for the AP records.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER, United States: I don’t know all that went into the formulation of the subpoena. This was a very serious — a very serious leak, and a very, very serious leak. I have been a prosecutor since 1976, and I have to say that this is among — if not the most serious, it’s within the top two or three most serious leaks that I have ever seen.

It put the American people at risk. And that is not hyperbole. It put the American people at risk. And trying to determine who is responsible for that I think required very aggressive action.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Holder suggested the focus is on government officials who did the leaking more than on reporters.

ERIC HOLDER: We have investigated cases on the basis of the facts, not as a result of a policy to get the press or to do anything of that nature. The facts and the law have dictated our actions in that regard.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And in a written response to the AP’s Pruitt, Cole cited a May 2012 investigation into the unauthorized disclosure of classified information. He also wrote that call records subpoenaed covered only a portion of that two-month period, and include personnel involved in the reporting of classified information.

On May 7th of last year, the AP reported that a CIA operation in Yemen had foiled an al-Qaida plot to bomb an airliner bound for the U.S. That same day, AP reporter Adam Goldman spoke to the NewsHour’s Kwame Holman about the decision to publish.

KWAME HOLMAN: You had been in discussions with the U.S. government about holding the story and decided to go with it today. The government didn’t want this story reported.

ADAM GOLDMAN, Associated Press: Last week, my colleague Matt Apuzzo and I learned about this plot as it was unfolding. And we agreed for national security reasons that we wouldn’t publish. Once those concerns had passed, we decided today that the public had a right to know that the U.S. had thwarted what we consider to be a very serious plot against aviation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Justice Department has not confirmed that story is the focus of the investigation. And at the White House today, Press Secretary Jay Carney wouldn’t give specifics.

JAY CARNEY, White House Press Secretary: I can’t comment on the specifics of that, but I can tell you that the president feels strongly that we need a — the press to be able to be unfettered in its pursuit of investigative journalism.

He is also mindful of the need for secret and classified information to remain secret and classified in order to protect our national security interests. So there are — there is a careful balance here that the must be attained.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Politicians from both parties warned, the Justice Department may have gone too far. Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairing the Judiciary Committee, said he is very troubled. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called for Attorney General Holder to resign.