(CBS News) The Associated Press doesn't question the Justice Department's right to have seized two months' worth of its phone records, the organization's president and CEO Gary Pruitt said Sunday on "Face the Nation." It was the methodology - "so sweeping, so secretively, so abusively and harassingly overbroad," he said - that breached the Constitution.
As part of its criminal investigation into who may have leaked information contained in a May 7, 2012, AP story about a foiled terror plot in Yemen, the department "issued a secret subpoena for the phone toll records for 21 AP phone lines and these were phones lines for reporters, direct lines, cell phones, home phones but also the office numbers," Pruitt explained. "So over 100, approximately a hundred journalists used these telephone lines as part of newsgathering and over the course of the two months of the records that they swept up, thousands upon thousands of newsgathering calls were made.
"...Under their own rules, they are required to narrow this request as narrowly as possible so as to not tread upon the First Amendment," he went on. "And yet they had a broad, sweeping collection, and they did it secretly. Their rules require them to come to us first but in this case they didn't, claiming an exception, saying that if they had it would have posed a substantial threat to their investigation. But they have not explained why it would and we can't understand why it would."
Pruitt said the AP acted "responsibly," holding the story for five days upon receiving guidance from the intelligence community that it posed a national security risk.
It was important for the American public to know about the CIA operation that thwarted an al Qaeda plot to detonate a bomb aboard a U.S.-bound airplane, he continued, because "the Department of Homeland security were telling the American public that there was no credible evidence of a terrorist plot related to the anniversary of the killing Of Osama bin Laden." That characterization was "misleading."
A call from a Washington, D.C. district attorney last week notified the AP of the subpoenaed phone records, Pruitt said. Since then, he added, "officials that would normally talk to us, and people we talk to in the normal course of newsgathering, are already saying they're a little reluctant to talk to us; they fear that they will be monitored by the government.
"...The government has no business having control over all, monitoring all of this newsgathering information from the Associated Press," he continued. "And if they restrict that apparatus, you're right - the people of the United States will only know what the government wants them to know and that's not what the framers of the Constitution had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment."