The U.S. Justice Department faced sharp criticism from news organisations, press freedom advocates and Congressmen after it was revealed on Monday that it had covertly obtained and examined the Associated Press’s (AP’s) telephone records during April-May,2012.

Unprecedented intrusion

In a strongly-worded letter to Attorney-General Eric Holder, AP’s President and Chief Executive Gary Pruitt said he objected to the “massive and unprecedented intrusion by the Department of Justice into the newsgathering activities of The Associated Press”, which Mr. Holder on Tuesday had defended on national security grounds.

Specifically, the DoJ’s secret review of phone records of 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists took place after a May 7, 2012 article in which AP disclosed that a sophisticated, second “underwear bomb” terror plot by al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen had been foiled.

While Mr. Holder admitted that he had recused himself from the investigation into the alleged leak to AP because he had been interviewed by the FBI on the case, he said the DoJ’s second in command, Deputy Attorney General James Cole, had made the decision to look at the phone records.

In the 2012 report on the terror plot, AP said the CIA had thwarted the plot even before the would-be suicide bomber, based in Yemen, had located a target or bought an airplane ticket.

However, it was clear that as the statement was issued, the bomb plot investigation was proceeding secretly. A report in The Hindu had noted that despite the U.S. Department of Homeland Security assuring the public that th ere was “no indication of any specific, credible threats or plots against the U.S.”, the AP had “agreed to a request by the White House to hold back because intelligence operations were ongoing”. Protesting the surveillance, the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press said in a letter to Mr. Holder and Mr. Cole that the DoJ had “ignored or brushed aside almost every aspect of the guidelines” on transparency when executing a subpoena, including not informing the AP about the decision to seek its phone records.

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