Administration defends getting AP phone records - DC News FOX 5 DC WTTG

Administration defends getting AP phone records

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Despite a wave of criticism from journalists' organizations (and from members of both parties on Capitol Hill), the U.S. Attorney General and the White House are defending the gathering of phone records of Associated Press reporters.

The Justice Department was (and still is) trying to discover the source of a leak of previously secret information. The Associated Press, in 2012, ran a story disclosing that the CIA, in the nation of Yemen, successfully disrupted an al-Qaida plan to blow up an airliner that was scheduled to fly to the United States.

In a letter to the AP, the Justice Department revealed that it has seized phone records from about 20 different lines, including AP's phones inside the U.S. Capitol. Executives for the news cooperative are howling that this is a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into the process of news gathering.

Attorney General Eric Holder called the leak "very, very serious.”

"I've been a prosecutor since 1976," Holder said Tuesday afternoon, "and I have to say this is among if not the most serious -- in the top two or three -- most serious leaks that I've ever seen. It put the American people at risk. And that is not hyperbole. It put the American people at risk."

The Attorney General said he recused himself from the case early on because he, himself, was interviewed by the FBI, and because of his frequent interaction with the media.

At the White House, Presidential spokesperson Jay Carney said President Barack Obama supports press freedom, but he also wants to maintain important national secrets. Carney told reporters, "The president feels strongly that we need the press to be unfettered in its pursuit of investigative journalism and you saw when he was a senator, the president co-sponsored legislation that would have provided further protections for journalists in this regard. [But] he is also mindful of the need for classified information to remain secret and classified in order to protect our national security interests so there is a careful balance here that must be attained."

Executives at the AP want all the phone records of its journalists returned, and all copies destroyed.

Criticism of the government action from Capitol Hill came from all directions, including Tea Party favorite Sen. Rand Paul (R- Kentucky) to Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland), a top Democratic leader in the House.

James Cole, the Deputy Attorney General who is running the investigation of the leak, sent a follow-up letter to the AP saying the phone records are "essential to a successful investigation" and pointing out that the phone records were not even sought until after more than 550 people had been interviewed in connection with the probe.

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