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Justice Dept. defends phone records seizure

WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Eric Holder Tuesday defended the Justice Department's secret examination of Associated Press phone records, justifying the effort as part of an investigation into what he called a grave national security leak.

Prominent Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill expressed outrage at the move, as did press freedom groups.

The government obtained the records from April and May of 2012 for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists, including main offices. AP's top executive called the action a massive and unprecedented intrusion into how news organizations do their work.

Federal investigators are trying to hunt down the sources of information for a May 7, 2012, AP story that disclosed details of a CIA operation in Yemen to stop an airliner bomb plot.

Asked about it at a news conference on a separate topic, Holder said he removed himself from the leaked-information probe because he had been interviewed by FBI agents as part of the investigation. It was the Justice Department's No. 2 official, Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who made the decision to seek news media phone records, the department said.

"This was a very serious leak, a very grave leak" that "put the American people at risk," Holder said. He did not say specifically how disclosure of information about the plot had endangered Americans.

Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus called on Holder to resign, saying he had "trampled on the First Amendment." Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said "the burden is always on the government when they go after private information, especially information regarding the press or its confidential sources. . . . On the face of it, I am concerned that the government may not have met that burden."

White House, spokesman Jay Carney said the president had just learned about the phone records and that it would be improper for Obama or the White House to weigh in yet.

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