News leak put Americans 'at risk,' US says

The leak that prompted the seizure of journalist phone records at a US news agency was a "very serious" matter which "puts the American people at risk," Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday.

Responding to fierce criticism of a violation of news media rights, Holder said, "I've been a prosecutor since 1976. And I have to say that this is among, if not the most serious... leaks I've ever seen."

"This was a... very, very serious leak," Holder told reporters at a news conference.

"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."

The comments came as the US government was facing a growing backlash after revelations that Justice Department had secretly obtained two months of phone records from the news operations of the Associated Press, believed to be linked to a probe into an article on a foiled terror plot.

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 noted that he had recused himself from the probe because he was interviewed by the FBI about unauthorized disclosures in the matter.

A Justice Department statement said that since Holder's recusal in June 2012, the investigation "has been conducted by the FBI under the direction of the US Attorney and the supervision of the deputy attorney general."

"The decision to seek media toll records in this investigation was made by the deputy attorney general consistent with department regulations and policies," the statement said.

The White House, meanwhile, sought to deflect criticism that it was targeting the news media in its war on leaks.

President Barack Obama's spokesman Jay Carney said the White House was "not involved" in the decisions to seek AP records, noting that the Justice Department operates independently.

"I can't comment on the specifics of that, but I can tell you that the president feels strongly that we need... the press to be able to be unfettered in its pursuit of investigative journalism," Carney told reporters.

"And he is also mindful of the need for secret and classified information to remain secret and classified in order to protect our national security interests."

The AP protested the seizure in a letter to Holder saying "there can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection" of phone records.

The revelation also brought a flurry of criticism of the administration for what critics called an unprecedented assault on press freedom.

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