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More than 50 US media organizations joined a protest of the US government seizure of journalist phone records from the Associated Press, describing the action as "an overreaching dragnet."
The action "calls into question the very integrity of Department of Justice policies toward the press and its ability to balance, on its own, its police powers against the First Amendment rights of the news media and the public's interest," said a letter released Tuesday by the coalition.
The protests came after the US government claimed it was trying to protect American lives when it took the drastic step of seizing journalists' phone records in a probe of what it calls a major security breach.
The letter, sent by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said that in the 30 years since the Justice Department issued guidelines governing its subpoena practice for journalist phone records, "none of us can remember an instance where such an overreaching dragnet for newsgathering materials was deployed."
Attorney General Eric Holder defended the action Tuesday, saying it was part of a probe into a security breach which had put the American people at risk.
"I've been a prosecutor since 1976. And I have to say that this is among, if not the most serious ... a ... very, very serious leak," Holder said.
"That's not hyperbole. Puts the American people at risk. And trying to determine who is responsible for that, I think, required very aggressive action," he declared.
The investigators' action is believed to be linked to a probe into a story on a foiled terror plot, which they suspect contained leaked information.
The AP said its story disclosed details of a CIA operation in Yemen that stopped an Al-Qaeda plot in 2012 to detonate a bomb on an airplane bound for the United States.
Holder said he had recused himself from the probe because he was interviewed by the FBI about unauthorized disclosures in the matter.
The protest letter was signed by news organizations including Dow Jones, EW Scripps, Gannett, The New York Times, The Newspaper Guild, Time Inc. and the Washington Post.
Criticism grew Wednesday with editorials and other comments from news organizations.
The Washington Post said in an editorial that "whatever national-security enhancement this was intended to achieve seems likely to be outweighed by the damage to press freedom and governmental transparency."
New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan said in a column, "This was supposed to be the administration of unprecedented transparency... Instead, it's turning out to be the administration of unprecedented secrecy and of unprecedented attacks on a free press."
National Press Club president Angela Greiling Keane said the incident "appears to be a gross violation of press freedom. If there's a good explanation for this, the public has a right to hear it."
Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute, a media education group, said that the government's ability to seize the logs despite free press protections "reminds me of the fact that North Korea's government has a statute on the books promising a free press.... the Justice Department's guidelines, like North Korea's free-press law, proved worthless as soon as they proved untidy."