Updated 11:20 p.m.
The U.S. Justice Department is defending its review of two months of phone records for a group of reporters and editors at the Associated Press, which called the government action "a massive and unprecedented intrusion" into newsgathering.
The news agency publicly disclosed the Justice Department's review of the phone records in a protest letter to Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. "There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters," Gary Pruitt, president and chief executive officer of the AP, wrote.
"That the Department undertook this unprecedented step without providing any notice to the AP, and without taking any steps to narrow the scope of its subpoenas to matters actually relevant to an ongoing investigation, is particularly troubling," Pruitt said. Prosecutors collected records on 20 separate phone lines.
A statement from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia did not reveal the nature of the investigation. The Justice Department, however, has previously disclosed that the Maryland and District of Columbia U.S. attorneys are investigating, among other national security matters, the leak of information that provided the substance of an Associated Press story, published in May 2012, about an alleged terrorist plot that was thwarted.
Members of Congress on Wednesday will get a chance to question Holder about the rare move to subpoena newspaper reporters' phone records. Holder is scheduled to testify at the House Judiciary Committee for an oversight hearing.
"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 DOJ statement read. "Those regulations require us to make every reasonable effort to obtain information through alternative means before even considering a subpoena for the phone records of a member of the media."
The statement concluded with this: "Because we value the freedom of the press, 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." (Click here to read the Justice Department's policy statement regarding the issuance of subpoenas to reporters.)
Civil liberties advocates urged the Justice Department to provide a fuller explanation.
"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 Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's legislative office in Washington, said in a formal 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."
U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, called the revelation of the Justice Department's action "disturbing." Issa said he "will work with my fellow House Chairmen on an appropriate response."
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that he is "very troubled by these allegations" and wants to hear from the Justice Department.
“The burden is always on the government when they go after private information--especially information regarding the press or its confidential sources," Leahy said. "I want to know more about this case, but on the face of it, I am concerned that the government may not have met that burden."
Pruitt, the AP executive, asked the Justice Department to return the telephone records and destroy any copies.
"At a minimum, we request that you take steps to segregate these records and prohibit any reference to them pending further discussion and, if it proves necessary, guidance from appropriate judicial authorities," Pruitt said.