The following editorial appeared recently in the Kansas City Star:

Americans understand no true democracy exists in the absence of a free press. Without a vigilant watchdog over government, all of our freedoms are imperiled.

President Barack Obama's administration struck hard at the press' watchdog function when it secretly seized two months of telephone records from reporters and editors at The Associated Press.

The Justice Department, under the direction of U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., was seeking the source of leaks in an AP investigation involving the CIA. Targeting the journalists was a dangerous overreach.

As Gary Pruitt, president and chief executive of AP, wrote in a letter to Holder, the journalists' phone logs potentially contain information about a wide variety of confidential sources. They also, as Pruitt wrote, "disclose information about AP's activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know."

Add to that the intrusion into the journalists' private lives, as some of the seized records were from personal telephones.

That the Justice Department is so far defending its actions is inexcusable. If Holder can't fathom what's wrong with his attack on press freedoms, he should not be the attorney general.

It is chilling that the administration's arrogant move may have been legal. A 1979 U.S. Supreme Court decision holds that telephone companies are free to share a subscriber's call information with the government. It's time to revisit that precedent. Today's phone records document a great deal about a person. The information may be useful in a criminal investigation, but authorities should need a warrant to see it.

Obama said Tuesday he was not aware of the spying. But it is more evidence of an administration overly preoccupied with leaks.

Here is news for the president: No leak is as dangerous to the American public as his administration's attempt to compromise a newsgathering organization. Obama should apologize to The Associated Press and make sure such an intrusion doesn't happen again on his watch.