Fact check: AP investigation

The Associated Press revealed that the Justice Department secretly obtained two months of reporter and editor phone records from the spring of 2012, the latest and most illustrative example of the Obama administration's war on leaks. The Department of Justice obtained lists of "incoming and outgoing calls, and the duration of each call, for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and the main number for AP reporters in the House of Representatives press gallery."

On May 7, 2012, AP reporters Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo, citing anonymous sources, reported that the CIA had thwarted a plot by an al-Qaeda affiliate to "destroy a U.S.-bound airliner using a bomb with a sophisticated new design around the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden." Apuzzo and Goldman were part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team that uncovered the NYPD's secret Muslim spying program. The AP acknowledged that it had agreed with the White House and CIA requests "not to publish" its story "immediately because the sensitive intelligence operation was still under way." But "once officials said those concerns were allayed," the news organization went ahead with its story rather than wait for the Obama administration's official announcement.

It was later revealed that the "would-be bomber" was actually a U.S. spy planted in the Yemen-based group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

On May 18, U.S. and allied officials suggested to Reuters that the leak to the AP had forced the end of an "operation which they hoped could have continued for weeks or longer." The Justice Department pushed hard to uncover the source of the leak, driven in part by demands from Republican lawmakers who said it had endangered national security.

The DOJ's campaign was heavily criticized by members of the media, who warned that it would have a chilling effect on the source-reporter relationship, and by civil liberties groups, who viewed it as an infringement on First Amendment rights.

"The media's purpose is to keep the public informed and it should be free to do so without the threat of unwarranted surveillance," Laura W. Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington Legislative Office, said in a statement. "The Attorney General must explain the Justice Department's actions to the public so that we can make sure this kind of press intimidation does not happen again."

The report only fanned the flames, with Democrats and Republicans alike criticizing the Department of Justice. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said he was "very troubled by these allegations" and wanted to hear the government's explanation. House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said that Holder needed to be "held accountable for what I think is wrong" if the authorization for the subpoena reached his desk. Regulations require the DOJ to make "every reasonable effort" to obtain information another way before considering subpoenaing reporter phone records. Members of the media must be notified in advance unless doing so "would pose a substantial threat" to the investigation.

"This is how leaks get investigated," said Miller , a former top spokesman for Attorney General Holder. "Leaking classified information is a crime, and there are usually only two parties who know who committed the crime, the leaker and the reporter. Getting access to phone records allows investigators to see who the possible source might have been and confront them with evidence of a crime."