WASHINGTON – Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday defended the Justice Department's secret examination of Associated Press phone records though he declared he had played no role in it, saying it was justified as part of an investigation into a grave national security leak.
The government's wide-ranging information gathering from the news cooperative has created a bipartisan political headache for President Barack Obama, with prominent Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill expressing outrage, along with press freedom groups.
The government obtained the records from April and May of 2012 for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists, including main offices. AP's top executive called the action a massive and unprecedented intrusion into how news organizations do their work.
Federal officials have said investigators are trying to hunt down the sources of information for a May 7, 2012, AP story that disclosed details of a CIA operation in Yemen to stop an airliner bomb plot around the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden. The probe is being run out of the U.S. Attorney's office in the District of Columbia.
Asked about it at a news conference on a separate topic, Holder said he removed himself from the leaked-information probe because he himself had been interviewed by FBI agents as part of the investigation. He said he wanted to ensure that the probe was independently run and to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest. It was the Justice Department's No. 2 official, Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who made the decision to seek news media phone records, the department said.
"This was a very serious leak, a very grave leak" that "put the American people at risk," Holder said. He called it one of the two or three most serious such episodes he had seen since he became a prosecutor in 1976 but did not say specifically how the disclosure of information about the plot had endangered Americans.
In February, CIA Director John Brennan provided a less-than-ominous description of the plot in testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee. He told the panel that "there was never a threat to the American public as we had said so publicly, because we had inside control of the plot and the device was never a threat to the American public."
The bomb plot came to light after the White House had told the public it had "no credible information that terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida, are plotting attacks in the U.S. to coincide with the anniversary of bin Laden's death."
In a letter to AP on Tuesday, Cole said the Justice Department had adhered to its rules for subpoenas for the news media and hadn't sought information about the content of calls. "The records have not been and will not be provided for use in any other investigations," Cole wrote.
In response, AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt said the department's response failed to justify the breadth of its subpoena, which included phone numbers in locations used by more than 100 journalists.
Condemnation of the government's seizure of the AP phone records came from both political parties.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called on Holder to resign, saying he had "trampled on the First Amendment."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said "the burden is always on the government when they go after private information, especially information regarding the press or its confidential sources. ... On the face of it, I am concerned that the government may not have met that burden."
Declared the No. 2 Democrat in the House, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland: "This is activity that should not have happened and must be checked from happening again."
Two Senate Democrats from one of the states where the AP records were seized — Connecticut — also said it was important to address the reasons for an action that they said could have a chilling effect on freedom of the press.
"I am concerned that this investigative action may fail to meet the government's high burden when invasion of privacy and chilling effects on First Amendment rights are at risk," said Richard Blumenthal, also a member of the Judiciary Committee. "The Department of Justice must be forthcoming with the facts as soon as possible."
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., added: "It's incumbent on the Justice Department to explain why they've seized telephone records from reporters and editors at The Associated Press so that their actions don't have a chilling effect on the freedom of the press."
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney said the president had learned about the phone records only Monday, through news reports. Citing the ongoing criminal investigation, Carney said it would be improper for Obama or the White House to weigh in.
"The president feels strongly that we need the press to be able to be unfettered in its pursuit of investigative journalism," Carney said, noting that Obama, as a U.S. senator, had pushed legislation to protect journalists' freedom. "He is also mindful of the need of secret and classified information to remain secret and classified, in order to protect our national security interests."
"There is a careful balance here that needs to be maintained," he added.
In the 30 years since the Justice Department issued guidelines governing subpoena practices relating to phone records from journalists, "none of us can remember an instance where such an overreaching dragnet for newsgathering materials was deployed," said the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Regarding the May 7, 2012 story, the AP delayed reporting it at the request of government officials who said it would jeopardize national security. Once officials said those concerns were allayed, the AP published the story and disclosed the plot, though the administration continued to request that the story be held until an official announcement.
Associated Press writer Josh Lederman contributed to this report