The Justice Department is not saying why it secretly seized the telephone records of reporters and editors at The Associated Press, but several people close to the department said federal authorities have focused on the news agency in an ongoing investigation into the source of leaks about a CIA operation in Yemen.
The AP reported Monday that the Justice Department had obtained two months of telephone records listing incoming and outgoing calls, the duration of each call, the offices and personal numbers of various reporters, general AP numbers in New York, and the numbers for AP reporters in the House press gallery.
It said the phone lines in AP bureaus in New York, Hartford, Conn., and Washington were among those affected.
A May 7, 2012, article by Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman said the CIA had derailed a planned attack by al Qaeda-backed terrorists in Yemen. The attack would have used an upgraded version of the device worn by the "underwear bomber" who unsuccessfully sought to down a U.S.-bound commercial jetliner on Christmas Day in 2009.
The AP story was published a day before President Obama planned to announce publicly that the terrorist attack had been foiled. Al Qaeda planned the attack to coincide with the first anniversary of the May 2, 2011, killing of Osama bin Laden.
The AP said the government seized the records of more than 20 telephone lines assigned to AP and its reporters for April and May 2012.
AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt said in a protest letter Monday to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. that the seizure was far beyond anything that could be justified by any specific investigation. He demanded the return of the phone records and destruction of all copies.
"There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of the Associated Press and its reporters," Mr. Pruitt wrote. "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."
The Justice Department referred inquiries on the matter to U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. in Washington.
"We take seriously our obligations to follow all applicable laws, federal regulations and Department of Justice policies when issuing subpoenas for phone records of media organizations," said Machen spokesman Bill Miller.
"Those regulations require us to make every reasonable effort to obtain information through alternative means before even considering a subpoena for the phone records of a member of the media. We must notify the media organization in advance unless doing so would pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation," he said.
John O. Brennan, who is now the CIA director, said in testimony in February that the release of information related to the Yemen plot was "unauthorized and dangerous disclosure of classified information."
The AP has said it published Mr. Apuzzo and Mr. Goldman's story with research assistance from Kimberly Dozier, Eileen Sullivan and Alan Fram, because it was assured that it did not pose a threat to national security.
The AP learned about the CIA's foiling of the plot the week before the Obama administration was going to announce it publicly and published it a day before the administration announced it. The phone records of the two lead reporters and the three researchers were included in the Justice Department's seizure.
Laura W. Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Washington Legislative Office, said the media's purpose is to "keep the public informed and it should be free to do so without the threat of unwarranted surveillance.
"The attorney general must explain the Justice Department's actions to the public so that we can make sure this kind of press intimidation does not happen again," she said.
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