WASHINGTON — The Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for the Associated Press in what the news cooperative’s top executive called a ‘‘massive and unprecedented intrusion’’ into how news organizations gather the news.
The records obtained by the Justice Department listed outgoing calls for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, for general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, and for the main number for the AP in the House of Representatives press gallery, according to attorneys for the AP. It was not clear if the records included incoming calls or the calls’ duration.
In all, the government seized the records for more than 20 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 where phone records were targeted.
In a letter of protest sent to Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday, AP chief executive Gary Pruitt said the government sought and obtained information 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. 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,’’ Pruitt said.
The government would not say why it sought the records. Officials have previously said in public testimony that the US attorney in Washington is conducting a criminal investigation into who may have provided information contained in a May 7, 2012, AP story about a foiled terror plot. The story disclosed details of a CIA operation in Yemen that stopped an Al Qaeda plot in the spring of 2012 to detonate a bomb on a US-bound airplane.
Prosecutors have sought phone records from reporters before, but the seizure of records from such a wide array of AP offices, including general AP switchboards numbers and an officewide shared fax line, is unusual.
In the letter notifying the AP, which was received Friday, the Justice Department offered no explanation for the seizure, according to Pruitt’s letter and attorneys for the AP.
The records were presumably obtained from phone companies earlier this year although the government letter did not explain that. None of the information provided by the government to the AP suggested the actual phone conversations were monitored.