AP Targeted By Justice Department After Yemen Bomber Story

Attorney General Eric Holder is defending the Justice Department against allegations of overreach after officials revealed that investigators had obtained phone records from the Associated Press. The unusual action is the latest in a year long investigation into a 2012 AP story that revealed details of a terrorist plot out of Yemen. Attorney General Eric Holder summed up the leak this way: "This was a very, very serious leak. It is within the top two or three most serious leaks that I have ever seen." Dina Temple-Raston talks to Audie Cornish.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We're going to look more closely now at the Associated Press story that apparently prompted that leak investigation we were hearing about. The AP says it believes the story is one it published in May of last year about a foiled terrorist plot out of Yemen. Yesterday, Eric Holder summed up the leak this way.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: This was a very serious - a very serious leak and a very, very serious leak. I've been a prosecutor since 1976, and I have to say that this is among, if not the most serious, it is in the top two or three most serious leaks that I've ever seen.

BLOCK: And the attorney general insisted that is not hyperbole. We're joined now by NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston to examine just how serious a breach that story might have been. And, Dina, why don't you start by laying out just what the AP reported in that story?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, it was a part of a series of stories and the first one appeared on May 7, 2012. Basically, it said that the CIA had thwarted a plot by al-Qaida in Yemen to bring down a U.S. airliner with a new, more sophisticated underwear bomb, a bomb like the one that got aboard that flight in Christmas of 2009. And it quoted U.S. officials saying that the plot was foiled before a would-be suicide bomber based in Yemen had picked a target or bought his plane ticket. Now, all this was happening around the time of the one-year anniversary of the Osama bin Laden killing, and the article noted that the White House and the Department of Homeland Security had been assuring the American people that there were no al-Qaida plots against the U.S. planned for the anniversary.

BLOCK: So the article, essentially, contradicted what the administration was saying which was that there was no known plot at that time?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Right. And that was why they said the story was so important and had to run when it did, five days after the Osama bin Laden anniversary.

BLOCK: Well, Dina, the AP says that the White House was going to be announcing details of this plot the day after the AP ran its story. Anyway, why was running the story a day early such a big deal?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, there's a little more back story. Remember, the gist of the AP story was that there was a plot and the U.S. had foiled it and an al-Qaida bomb didn't make it onto a U.S. plane. But it turns out that there was more to it than that. And as we understood it then and still understand it, that suicide bomber that the AP refers to in the story - in their story was actually a double agent working with Western intelligence agencies. And while he did hand this new underwear bomb technology to Western intelligence agents so they could study it, officials told us that that single bomb wasn't the reason for this operation. They had hoped that the agent could do more, so one consequence of the story is that this agent's identity was blown.

BLOCK: And when you say they hope this agent could do more, what were they hoping that he could do?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the bomb was of such interest to officials because of who made it: Ibrahim al-Asiri, the bomb-making genius of al-Qaida's arm in Yemen. Asiri has always - is also thought to be behind the printer cartridge bomb that was supposed to target cargo jets over the U.S. a couple of years ago and also that underwear bomb of Christmas 2009. And his bomb-craft is considered really good, like top-notch.

BLOCK: So the idea was that this agent was supposed to get information for the United States so that they can ultimately find this bomb maker that you're talking about.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes. The U.S. or Western intelligence agencies. Officials tell us the plan was to reinsert the agent into al-Qaida's arm in Yemen after they got their hands on the bomb. But with the AP leak, officials said that became impossible. AP says it waited five days to publish its story. Our understanding is those five days allowed the agent's family to be moved, and the agent, now compromised, could be given a new identity and move somewhere else too. So when Attorney General Holder talks about this being a damaging leak, that's apparently what he's referring to.

BLOCK: OK. Dina, thank you.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston. We were talking about the Associated Press story that appears to have set off the Justice Department's controversial leak investigation.

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