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Former Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, who served under President George W. Bush, described the seizure of the AP telephone records as “reprehensible conduct,” adding that it appeared the administration wanted to muzzle news accounts contradicting their “narrative” that al Qaeda terrorists were on the run.

“The underlying facts with regard to the AP story suggest that there was a somewhat broader gathering of data than should’ve ever been authorized,” he told Fox News.

The Justice Department reportedly gathered two months of AP phone records and other information after the news service published a story detailing how a terrorist bombing plot in Yemen had been foiled. The story broke a day before President Obama planned to release the news, and the Justice probe apparently was designed to learn who leaked information about the plot to the AP.

FBI agents have questioned Mr. Holder, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and CIA Director John Brennan as part of the Yemen leak investigation.

Lucy Dalglish, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, described the scope of the subpoena for the phone records as “breathtaking.”

“I can’t think of another case where the Justice Department has sought the records of virtually an entire newsroom,” said Ms. Dalglish, former executive director of the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press. “These subpoenas have historically been more targeted toward a specific reporter’s phone records. The chief purpose of this approach can only be intimidation of both government employees and journalists.

“No administration that values the free flow of information to the public would use this tactic. And I think the public and Congress will probably conclude the Justice Department has overplayed its hand. Notice is only required for phone records. It is highly likely they also have credit card receipts, airplane records, and other digital information about all of these journalists. I’ve never been more disturbed about a government subpoena,” she said.

The Obama administration has aggressively pursued leak investigations and brought more criminal prosecutions than any previous administration.