Government officials say they reached out for huge quantities of Associated Press reporters' telephone records because a double agent in the war on terror was compromised by a story – even though the news agency's reporting on the issue didn't mention the agent.
In fact, it was now-CIA Director John Brennan, who then was Barack Obama's terror adviser, who told members of Congress that the U.S. had "inside control" of the situation, and media then reported on the use of a double agent.
That's according to a profile of the government's justification for pursuing the reporters' telephone records published in the Los Angeles Times, which was one of the publications that reported on the double agent after Brennan documented the situation to Congress.
Government officials told the newspaper that it was an AP story on May 7, 2012, about a foiled plot to blow up a passenger jet that prompted the controversy, a story the AP held for five days at the request of the CIA.
But the report said that story did not mention the informant.
Ultimately, the fallout from the revelation that a double-agent existed infuriated British officials, whose intelligence agency had developed the source, and Saudi Arabian intelligence officials were "dismayed."
Times writer Kevin Dilanian said the sequence developed like this:
The informant was a British citizen who was born in Saudi Arabia and was recruited by Britain to work as a double agent inside al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. His information led to a drone strike by the U.S. that killed al-Qaida's Fahd Mohammed Ahmed Quso on May 6, 2012. The informant also expressed a desire to blow up a U.S. passenger jet and was outfitted with a bomb. The informant left Yemen and delivered the bomb to authorities and intelligence officials hoped to send him back to Yemen. But al-Qaida covered its tracks when the information about a double agent surfaced.
The Times report, which did not identify the U.S. officials who were sources, said the Justice Department then went after the telephone records of more than 20 lines belonging to AP reporters to investigate the "leak" of details.
The beleaguered Attorney General Eric Holder, who also is fighting a defense of the IRS' admitted policy of attacking and blocking conservative organizations seeking formal recognition, said the Yemen failure is "among, if not the most serious, in the top two or three most serious leaks that I've every seen."
The Times quoted another unidentified CIA attorney who said that's simply an exaggeration.
"Any time you've got a human being involved who was compromised, it's serious," he told the Times. "But it certainly wasn't one of the top two or three that I would have picked. And I never heard of a leak investigation throwing out a dragnet over this many reporters."
It was the New York Times that reported it was Verizon Wireless that turned over reporters' phone records to the government "without any attempt to obtain permission to tell them so the reporters could ask a court to quash the subpoena."
The company refused to comment on any "particular" case.
But University of Maryland journalism school Dean Lucay Dalglish warned such actions would make reporters less able to research and report news.
The case developed this week when the Justice Department confirmed it snooped into media phone records because of the blown Yemen operation. It was one of just three major scandals to land on the White House -- the others being the Benghazi terror attack and the IRS decision to target conservative groups with apparent harassment.
Twenty separate lines assigned to AP staff were investigated, prompting a backlash from the legacy media, which largely has been rooting for Obama during his move into and tenure at the White House.
Slate's Ryan Gallegher said, "The debacle is likely to come as a much needed wake up call for some reporters, even if companies fail to change their questionable practices. The message is simple: Don't communicate with sensitive sources on the phone, regardless of who your carrier is. Encryption is an option, but safest is to do things the old-fashioned way: face-to-face, with a notepad and a pen."
Congress has taken note of the dispute, with a bill being introduced to prevent another grab of records. The "Telephone Records Protection Act" is only one sentence but would prevent the government from seizing such records with only an administrative subpoena. Instead, a court order would be required.
Obama was quoted by Iran's PressTV saying he's confident Holder is doing the job correctly, even as national Republican leaders called for his resignation.
Holder himself defended the move, even though he said he was "not aware" of the seizure of the records.
AP officials have said the seizure was inappropriate and have demanded the return of the records.
"We held that story until the government assured us that the national security concerns had passed," AP chief Gary Pruitt said in a prepared statement.