WASHINGTON – Americans were in danger.
That was the chief argument Attorney General Eric Holder tried to make this week for why Justice Department officials seized two months' worth of phone records of reporters and editors at The Associated Press.
But the AP has strongly refuted from the start claims that it put the country in danger. The accusation that the news organization risked national security isn’t sitting so well with other journalists and lawmakers who have started pushing back on the claims.
“We held that story until the government assured us that the national security concerns had passed,” AP President Gary Pruitt said in a written response to the Justice Department's claims.
A report from The Washington Post appeared to give more weight to the AP's claims.
According to the Post, the AP had been sitting on a scoop about a failed Al Qaeda plot at the request of CIA officials for five days. The morning they were supposed to release the story, journalists were asked by government officials to wait another day, citing safety concerns.
However, the CIA officials who first cited the security concerns said they no longer had the same worries. Rather, the Obama administration was planning to announce the success of the counterterrorism project the following day, according to The Post report.
After a series of negotiations, the AP ultimately decided to publish. Months later, the Obama administration seized the phone records – home, work and cell -- of 20 AP reporters and editors.
The government says it was trying to hunt down the AP government source who leaked information about a top secret U.S. operation to thwart an Al Qaeda plan to blow up an airliner.
Holder said earlier this week that it was one of the most serious leaks he's encountered, and it put the American people "at risk."
One White House official told the Post that the reason the administration was planning to go public with the operation was because they knew the AP was planning a story.
But the argument doesn’t hold up, some say, because the day after it was released, the White House’s top counterterrorism adviser went on “Good Morning America” and talked about how successful the operation had been. John Brennan, now CIA director, praised the work of U.S. intelligence officials and said that the Al Qaeda plot was never an active threat to the American public.
Brennan’s comments seem to challenge the reason the government pressed the news organization to hold the story as well as Holder’s claims that the leak and published report endangered Americans.
On Tuesday, Holder defended the department’s secret examination of the AP phone records even though he went on to say he had recused himself from the case. He could not offer details on the investigation.
In all, the government pulled the April 2012-May 2012 telephone records from four AP bureaus including Washington and New York.
The department's actions angered many lawmakers and First Amendment groups.
Pruitt called the Justice Department’s actions “a massive and unprecedented intrusion.”