Nightly News   |  May 14, 2013

Obtaining AP phone records a ‘last resort’

Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who approved getting the AP’s phone records to track down the person that leaked classified information, said it was a last-resort effort after having conducted hundreds of interviews. NBC’s Pete Williams reports

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>>> to this other front the justice department is defending itself tonight after we learned the feds have tracked more than 20 phone lines used by the associated press, their reporters and editors including their offices, homes and cell phones , a move that news organizations have called an outrageous and unconstitutional overreach. our justice correspondent pete williams paying us a visit here in our new york studios tonight with that story. pete, good evening.

>> brian, good evening to you. this is far from the first time that the justice department has gotten a reporter's telephone records, a power that the courts have upheld but what makes this difference is the apparent breadth of the records involved, covering phone lines that the ap says were used by scores of its reporters. the justice department insisted that it acted because american lives were at risk and tracked the phone calls of ap reporters and editors because it had no options left to find out who in the government was the source for an ap story about a highly classified effort a year ago to foil a terror plot.

>> officials are telling us the cia thwarted a plot by an al qaeda branch in yemen to detonate a bomb on a u.s.-bound jetliner.

>> reporter: the ap says the government obtained logs of calls from more than 20 phone lines last april and may including some home and cell numbers and the general switchboard lines of its offices in new york , washington and hartford, connecticut.

>> more than 100 journalists for the ap work at the places whose phone numbers and phone records were seized by the justice department .

>> reporter: attorney general eric holder said today that he was not involved in the decision to get the phone logs, having taken himself off the case last year to avoid the appearance of a conflict because he knew about the classified operation before it became public but he said he's confident the rules were followed in pursuing what he called one of the most serious leaks he's ever seen.

>> put the american people at risk, and that is not hyperbole, it put the american people at risk and trying to determine who was responsible for that i think required very aggressive action.

>> reporter: the deputy attorney general, james cole, who did approve getting the phone records said in a letter it was a last resort, after investigators did more than 550 interviews and reviewed tens of thousands of documents but first amendment advocates say such a broad effort could chill the ability to learn about wrongdoing.

>> the public taxpayer citizens, we all need the information that whistleblowers provide and to crack down on whistleblowers like this is, should send a chill throughout the government to anybody who might want to come forward.

>> there's no reason to think the phone calls of other news organizations were tracked and the government did not listen in on these calls, it got the records well after the calls were made. as for who in the government leaked this in the first place, no one has been charged with that, brian.

>> pete williams with us in new york , pete, thank you as always.