Editorial employees work in the newsroom at the headquarters of The Associated Press in New York on Tuesday. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

More than four dozen media organizations joined forces Tuesday to sharply rebuke the Justice Department for secretly gathering the phone records of Associated Press journalists, calling on the department to promptly return the records and disclose all other pending subpoenas related to the news media.

“The scope of this action calls into question the very integrity of Department of Justice policies toward the press and its ability to balance, on its own, its police powers against the First Amendment rights of the news media and the public’s interest in reporting on all manner of government conduct,” the media outlets and associations, including The Washington Post, wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole.

The AP’s president, Gary B. Pruitt, said Monday that authorities obtained phone records of journalists working for the wire service, a move he characterized as a “massive and unprecedented intrusion.” The records were collected as part of an investigation into the disclosure of classified information about a failed al-Qaeda plot last year. Holder characterized the leak as “very, very serious” at a Tuesday news conference.

The letter, which was sent by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit group that provides legal assistance to journalists at no cost, demands that the records be returned to the AP and that copies be destroyed. Failing that, the letter says, the records should at least be barred from further use.

Holder told reporters Tuesday that he had recused himself from investigating the leak. The FBI, he said, is looking into the leak under Cole’s supervision and under the direction of the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.

Holder expressed confidence that all rules and regulations were followed in the probe. But the media coalition charged that his department appeared to run afoul of guidelines, including those requiring the scope of a subpoena to be as narrow as possible and, with exceptions, disclosure of the intent to pursue a subpoena.