AP CEO disputes Justice Department’s claims about the dangers posed by leak of thwarted Al Qaeda plot

The CEO of Associated Press dismissed a recent claim made by the Attorney General about the dangers posed by the news organization’s decision to publish a story on an Al Qaeda bombing plot foiled by the CIA last year, noting the “suspicious” timing of the comment.

On May 7, 2012, AP ran a story on about an Al Qaeda plot to smuggle a sophisticated bomb aboard a U.S. airliner. Al Qaeda in Yemen had planned to carry out the attack around the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s killing. The plot was foiled by the CIA, who was working with a double agent who was tasked by Al Qaeda to carry the bomb.

AP CEO Gary Pruitt emphasized that the story’s publication was held off for five days at the request of the Obama administration because the operation was still underway at the time.

“It was a very significant news story and obviously a sensitive news story, and AP went to the administration and talked to them about it. And the administration asked us to hold the story out of national security concern, and we did,” said Pruitt. “And AP does not want to endanger anybody’s life or endanger national security, and so we always strive to act responsibly, and we did in this case. And only after we had heard from two parts of the government that the national security risk had passed did we run the story.”

Shortly after the AP’s publication, however, the FBI announced an investigation to find the source of the leak. A year later, on May 10, 2013, AP was notified of the Justice Department’s seizure of phone records for 21 AP phone lines, including the work and personal numbers of journalists, over a 40-day period around the time the Al Qaeda story was published.

Deviating from standard practice, the Justice Department used a secret subpoena to obtain the phone records, which prevented the AP from challenging the subpoena request in court.

At a press conference on May 14th, Attorney General Eric Holder defended the DOJ’s actions, saying they were justified because of the seriousness of the leak.

“This was a very serious – a very serious – a very, very serious leak,” said Holder, who recused himself from the leak investigation. “It put the American people at risk, and that is not a hyperbole. It put the American people at risk. And trying to determine who is responsible for that, I think, required very aggressive action.”

Pruitt characterized the timing of Holder’s claim as “suspicious” since he said AP never told by administration officials at the time that running the story after the concluded would compromise national security.

“We didn’t hear anything until a year later when we found out that our records got swept up as part of the leak investigation. But we didn’t hear any push back from them at that time,” Pruitt said. “Do I think they were happy that we got the story? No. Did they criticize us for somehow jeopardizing national security? No. I think that if that comes up now over a year later, that’s more suspicious to me.”

Pruitt noted that the White House planned to announce thwarted plot on May 8, 2012 and asked AP to hold the story for more day. AP did not accommodate the White House’s request because the reason given had nothing to do with national security.

“After AP released the story and it broke, the White House was very aggressive in talking about this story,” said Pruitt.

He also stressed that although AP reporters had suspected the involvement of a double agent in the plot, that information was intentionally omitted from the May 7, 2012 story out of safety concerns. Pruitt pointed out that the existence of the double agent was revealed by John Brennan, who was then the administration’s head of counter-terrorism, after the AP’s story ran.

“AP did not disclose the fact that a double agent was involved in this news story. The fact of the internal control only came from the administration and then was reported more widely by other news organization,” said Pruitt. “[Brennan] disclosed that the CIA had internal control of the situation. That implication allowed others to draw conclusion that there was a spy, there was a double agent.”

When asked why he thinks Holder has waited until now to portray the AP story as an incredibly dangerous leak, Pruitt replied, “That’s a really good question. I don’t know the answer! I have that same question.”

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