The Associated Press on Monday said the U.S. government secretly seized telephone records of AP offices and reporters for a two-month period in 2012, describing the acts as a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into news-gathering operations.
AP Chief Executive Gary Pruitt, in a letter posted on the agency's website, said the AP was informed last Friday that the Justice Department gathered records for more than 20 phone lines assigned to the agency and its reporters.
"There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters," Pruitt said in the letter, which was addressed to Attorney General Eric Holder.
An AP story on the records seizure said the government would not say why it sought the records.
But it noted that U.S. officials have previously said the U.S. Attorney's Office in the District of Columbia was conducting a criminal investigation into information contained in a May 7, 2012, AP story about a CIA operation in Yemen that stopped an al Qaeda plot to detonate a bomb on an airplane headed for the United States.
Five reporters and an editor involved in that story were among those whose phone numbers were obtained by the government, the AP said.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in the District of Columbia, which notified the AP of the seizure, issued a statement on Monday saying it was "careful and deliberative" when dealing with issues around freedom of the press.
"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," the office said.
A Justice Department spokesman referred inquiries to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
The seized phone records were for April and May of 2012 and AP bureaus in New York, Hartford and Washington were among those affected, as well as an AP phone at the U.S. House of Representatives press gallery, the AP said.
The records seized included general AP switchboard numbers and an office shared fax line, according to the AP story on the probe.