WASHINGTON (CNN) — The Justice Department on Tuesday defended its decision to subpoena phone records from Associated Press bureaus and reporters, saying the requests were limited and necessary to investigate a leak of classified information.
The AP revealed Monday that federal agents had collected two months of telephone records for some of its reporters and editors without notifying it of the subpoena.
In a letter to the news service’s president, Gary Pruitt, Deputy Attorney General James Cole said the Justice Department had balanced the public’s right to know with national security.
“Any subpoena that is issued should be drawn as narrowly as possible, be directed at relevant information regarding a limited subject matter and should cover a reasonably limited period of time,” Cole wrote. “We are required to negotiate with the media organization in advance of issuing the subpoenas unless doing so would pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation. We take this policy, and the interests that it is intended to protect, very seriously and followed it in this matter.”
The records included calls from several AP bureaus and the personal phone lines of several staffers, Pruitt wrote in a Monday letter to Attorney General Eric Holder.
Pruitt called the subpoenas a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into the AP’s reporting.
“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,” he wrote.
The subpoenas were disclosed to the news agency on Friday, Pruitt wrote. In all, federal agents collected records from more than 20 lines, including personal phones and AP phone numbers in New York; Hartford, Connecticut; and Washington, he wrote.
Holder said Tuesday that he had stepped aside to avoid any potential conflict of interest in the case and left the decision to subpoena the phone records to Cole.
Holder said his recusal was necessary because he had been questioned by FBI agents as part of the leak probe and wanted to make sure “that the investigation was seen as independent.”
The Justice Department has not disclosed the specific subject of the probe. But the AP noted that U.S. officials have said they were probing how details were leaked in May 2012 about a foiled bomb plot that targeted a U.S.-bound aircraft.
The news agency said records from five reporters and an editor who worked on a story about the plot were among those collected.
Holder said the leak being investigated was one of the most serious he has ever seen.
“It put the American people at risk, and that’s not hyperbole,” he said. “It put the American people at risk, and finding who was responsible for that required very aggressive action.”
The Obama administration has launched several high-profile leak probes, leading to the prosecution of two government employees accused of revealing classified information.
Thomas Drake, a former National Security Agency official, was sentenced to one year of probation and 240 hours of community service in 2011, while former CIA officer John Kiriakou was sentenced to 30 months in prison after admitting to identifying a covert intelligence officer.
CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said Monday that the subpoenas were likely legal, but go further than previous administrations in pursuing private information of journalists.
“I have never heard of a subpoena this broad,” Toobin said.
The White House had no knowledge of any attempt by the Justice Department to seek the records, spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday.
“We are not involved with the White House in any decisions made in connection with ongoing criminal investigations as those matters are handled appropriately by the Justice Department independently,” Carney told reporters at a news conference.
Carney said the administration supports the right of the press to pursue investigative journalism, but said a balance must be struck between that right and national security interests.
“The president is a strong defender of the First Amendment and a firm believer in the need for the press to be unfettered in its ability to conduct investigative reporting and to facilitate a free flow of information,” Carney said. “He also, of course, recognizes the need for the Justice Department to investigate alleged criminal activity without undue influence.”
CNN’s Jessica Yellin, Carol Cratty, Kevin Bohn, Joe Sterling and Josh Levs contributed to this report.
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