The Associated Press recently revealed that the Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records from their reporters and editors in what is believed to be an effort to determine how they found out about an al-Qaida bomb plot in Yemen.
They are calling it a "massive and unprecedented intrusion," as the government seems to have spied on their phone calls back in 2012, but the organization was not notified about it until Friday.
Associated Press CEO Gary Pruitt wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder saying that there "can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters."
Pruitt said, "these 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 AP's newsgathering operations, and disclose information about AP's activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know."
Their compilation of phone records included the work and personal numbers of reporters as well as calls made to and from AP offices in New York, Washington, Hartford, and on the AP line in the House of Representatives press gallery.
"In all, the government seized those records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists in April and May of 2012. The exact number of journalists who used the phone lines during that period is unknown but more than 100 journalists work in the offices whose phone records were targeted on a wide array of stories about government and other matters," AP said.
Though the government has not said why it sought the phone records, U.S. officials said in public testimony that the U.S. attorney is conducting a criminal investigation into who might have provided information obtained in a May 7, 2012 AP story about a terror plot.
In the story, AP reports on details of a CIA operation in Yemen that stopped an al-Qaida plot from happening in the spring of 2012. The plot involved detonating a bomb on an airplane bound for America.
In February, CIA director John Brennan said he was questioned by the FBI about whether he was AP's source. He denied having given the organization information, calling the release of the information "unauthorized and dangerous disclosure of classified information."
While prosecutors have sought phone records from reporters in the past, this is the first time they have seized records from a large number of phone lines, including general AP switchboards numbers and an office-wide shared fax line.
It is presumed that the records were obtained from phone companies, but the letter did not explain that. No information in the letter suggested that the actual phone conversations were monitored.
The Justice Department has rules that state subpoenas of phone records from news organizations be personally approved by the attorney general. It is not known if this happened in AP's case. The letter AP received on Friday was from Ronald Machen, the U.S. attorney in Washington.
When William Miller, spokesman for Machen, was asked about the case, he said "we do not comment on ongoing criminal investigations."
He said the U.S. attorney, in general, follows "all applicable laws, federal regulations, and Department of Justice policies when issuing subpoenas for phone records of media organizations."