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Associated Press reporters and editors work in their assigned space in the House Press Gallery on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 14, 2013. The Justice Department secretly obtained telephone records from April and May of 2012 of reporters and editors for the AP in what the news cooperative's top executive called a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into how news organizations gather the news. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Much of the Watergate scandal was broken through tips slipped to the Washington Post's Bob Woodward in a darkened parking lot by a source known for decades only as "Deep Throat."

The rippling disclosures of the Watergate break-in -- secret wiretaps, hush money, enemies lists, dirty political tricks and, of course, the cover-up -- landed a lot of folks in prison and propelled a disgraced president into early retirement. The more optimistic among us also hoped it would pave the way for a new era of honest government.

Sadly, that didn't happen. So the necessity of journalists and their sources to be able to communicate in confidence remains vital more than four decades after the Watergate burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

For reasons that are only sometimes obvious many who feel government misconduct must be exposed will not risk public identification.

That is why the Justice Department's admission that last year it secretly seized phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors is not only outrageous, it's also both a direct and insidious threat to democracy and the First Amendment.

The seized AP phone records from a two-month period weren't confined to a reporter or two. The broad net cast by the Justice Department included phone lines that AP reporters used in the House of Representatives press gallery, as well as nearly two dozen others at AP's Washington bureau.

"There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of (the AP) and its reporters," AP's president Gary Pruitt wrote Attorney General Eric Holder. "These records potentially reveal communication with confidential sources across all the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP ... provide a road map to AP's news gathering operations, and disclose information ... that the government has no conceivable right to know."

We could not agree more.

On Tuesday, Holder tried to justify the seizure by saying it was part of an investigation into a "very grave" national security leak. That might be the case, but legal standards normally require a legitimate offer of proof before prosecutors can rummage journalists' files or phone lists. Short of providing such an offer, the Justice Department should immediately meet Pruitt's demand that all records be returned and all copies be destroyed.

Given this week's ominous disclosure, it's not unreasonable to assume that such seizures have spread to other newsgathering operations. In addition to returning the AP phone records, the Justice Department should disclose the extent of any such records-gathering unless there is a justified national security or criminal investigation reason for not doing so. So far we haven't heard one.

The June 1972 break-in occurred five months before Richard Nixon was re-elected in a landslide. That landslide did not, of course, provide him enough political juice to avoid disclosures about the pre-election abuses that ultimately destroyed his presidency.

The Obama administration's phone record seizures were executed in an election year, a month before the 40th anniversary of Watergate. Must there be more secret parking-garage meetings?

Well, if necessary? In a heartbeat.