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  • Attorney General Eric Holder is questioned about the Justice Department secretly obtaining two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press, during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, Tuesday, May 14, 2013. In what the news cooperative's top executive called a "massive and unprecedented intrusion," the Justice Department monitored outgoing calls for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, for general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and for the main number for the AP in the House of Representatives press gallery, according to attorneys for the AP.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

    Attorney General Eric Holder is questioned about the Justice Department secretly obtaining two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press, during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, Tuesday, May 14, 2013. In what the news cooperative's top executive called a "massive and unprecedented intrusion," the Justice Department monitored outgoing calls for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, for general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and for the main number for the AP in the House of Representatives press gallery, according to attorneys for the AP. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • Editorial employees work in the newsroom at the headquarters of The Associated Press in New York on Tuesday, May 14, 2013. The Justice Department secretly obtained telephone records from April and May of 2012 of reporters and editors for the AP in what the news cooperative's top executive called a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into how news organizations gather the news. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

    Editorial employees work in the newsroom at the headquarters of The Associated Press in New York on Tuesday, May 14, 2013. The Justice Department secretly obtained telephone records from April and May of 2012 of reporters and editors for the AP in what the news cooperative's top executive called a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into how news organizations gather the news. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

  • Attorney General Eric Holder is questioned about the Justice Department secretly obtaining two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press, during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, Tuesday, May 14, 2013. In what the news cooperative's top executive called a "massive and unprecedented intrusion," the Justice Department monitored outgoing calls for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, for general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and for the main number for the AP in the House of Representatives press gallery, according to attorneys for the AP.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
  • Editorial employees work in the newsroom at the headquarters of The Associated Press in New York on Tuesday, May 14, 2013. The Justice Department secretly obtained telephone records from April and May of 2012 of reporters and editors for the AP in what the news cooperative's top executive called a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into how news organizations gather the news. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Attorney General Eric Holder yesterday defended the Justice Department’s secret examination of Associated Press phone records though he declared he had played no role in it, justifying the effort as part of an investigation into what he called a grave national security leak.

The government’s information gathering from the news cooperative has created a bipartisan political headache for President Obama, with prominent Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill expressing outrage, along with press freedom groups.

The government obtained the records from April and May 2012 for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists, including main offices. AP’s top executive called the action a massive and unprecedented intrusion into how news organizations do their work.

Federal investigators are trying to hunt down the sources of information for a May 7, 2012, AP story that disclosed details of a CIA operation in Yemen to stop an airliner bomb plot around the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden. The probe is being run out of the U.S. Attorney’s office in the District of Columbia.

Asked about it at a news conference on a separate topic, Holder said he removed himself from the leaked-information probe because he himself had been interviewed by FBI agents as part of the investigation. He said he wanted to ensure that the probe was independently run and to avoid any potential appearance of a conflict of interest. It was the Justice Department’s No. 2 official, Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who made the decision to seek news media phone records, the department said.

“This was a very serious leak, a very grave leak” that “put the American people at risk,” Holder said. He called it one of the two or three most serious such episodes he had seen since he became a prosecutor in 1976 but did not say specifically how the disclosure of information about the plot had endangered Americans.

The Associated Press

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