In a sweeping and unusual move, the Justice Department secretly obtained two monthsâ€™ worth of telephone records of journalists working for the Associated Press as part of a year-long investigation into the disclosure of classified information about a failed al-Qaeda plot last year.
The APâ€™s president said Monday that federal authorities obtained cellular, office and home telephone records of individual reporters and an editor; AP general office numbers in Washington, New York and Hartford, Conn.; and the main number for AP reporters covering Congress. He called the Justice Departmentâ€™s actions a â€œmassive and unprecedented intrusionâ€ into newsgathering activities.
The aggressive investigation into the possible disclosure of classified information to the AP is part of a pattern in which the Obama administration has pursued current and former government officials suspected of releasing secret material. Six officials have been prosecuted, more than under all previous administrations combined.
In a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., the APâ€™s president and chief executive, Gary B. Pruitt, said that the Justice Department sought information beyond what could be justified by any specific probe and demanded that the government return the phone records and destroy all copies.
â€œThere can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters,â€ Pruitt wrote to Holder. â€œThese records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to APâ€™s newsgathering operations, and disclose information about APâ€™s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.â€
The inquiry is one of two leak investigations ordered last June by Holder. The second involves a New York Times report about the Stuxnet computer worm, which was developed jointly by the United States and Israel to damage nuclear centrifuges at Iranâ€™s main uranium-enrichment plant.
The two leak inquiries were started after Republicans in Congress accused the Obama administration of orchestrating news stories intended to demonstrate the presidentâ€™s toughness on terrorism and improve his chance for reelection. The Republicans sought a special prosecutor, but Holder instead named two veteran prosecutors to handle the inquiries.
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