The wire service said it was not told the reason for the seizure. But it said the timing and several journalists targeted, along with earlier congressional testimony, suggested the actions were tied to an AP story the CIA broke up a plot by al-Qaida's Yemeni affiliate to blow up a U.S.-bound passenger jet on the one-year anniversary of the May 2, 2011, killing of Osama bin Laden.
Five targeted reporters and an editor were involved in that May 7, 2012, story.
The AP delayed reporting the story at the request of U.S. officials who said it would jeopardize national security. Once the officials said those concerns were over, AP reported the plot, even though the Obama administration asked AP to continue holding the story until the administration could make an official announcement, the news service said.
AP President Gary Pruitt said in a letter to Holder the seizure was a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into AP's newsgathering activities.
"There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of the Associated Press and its reporters," he 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."
Pruitt demanded the government return the phone records and destroy all copies.
Under Obama, six current and former government officials have been indicted in leak-related cases, twice the number brought under all previous administrations combined.
Usually when investigators seek information about a news organization's source, the organization moves to quash a subpoena for its records. But in this case, AP was not aware the records had been obtained.
"We must notify the media organization in advance unless doing so would pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation," U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Ronald Machen said through a spokesman.
Machen was assigned by Holder last June to lead one of two major leak investigations.
"Because we value the freedom of the press," spokesman Bill Miller said, "we are always careful and deliberative in seeking to strike the right balance between the public interest in the free flow of information and the public interest in the fair and effective administration of our criminal laws."
Justice Department guidelines require subpoenas of news organization records to be personally approved by the attorney general. It was not immediately clear if those guidelines were followed in this case.
Holder's office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said late Monday the White House was not involved in the AP subpoenas.
"Other than press reports, we have no knowledge of any attempt by the Justice Department to seek phone records of the AP," he said. "We are not involved in decisions made in connection with criminal investigations, as those matters are handled independently by the Justice Department."
It was not immediately clear if a judge or grand jury signed off on the subpoenas.
A federal grand jury in Washington has been investigating the possible leak of classified information to the AP for several months, The Washington Post reported.
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