WASHINGTON — Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday faced a bipartisan blast of criticism for his agency’s wide-ranging subpoena to seize the home, work and cell phone records of 100 Associated Press (AP) reporters in a government leak investigation.
“Let’s be frank, you don’t have all that much credibility,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).
A prominent Democrat, Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, called the Justice Department’s actions “chilling.”
“It seems to me the damage done to a free press is substantial,” Lofgren said. “I think this is a very serious matter that concerns all of us, no matter our party affiliation.”
In addition to the AP investigation, Holder faced tough questions on how he will conduct an investigation into the IRS targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, Benghazi, and the FBI’s investigation of Boston bombing suspects prior to last month’s terrorist attack.
“Government action has become suspect to many of us,” said Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas). “Some bungling has been going on.”
Added Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio): “I believe there’s been a pattern by this administration in not taking responsibility, avoiding blame, and pointing fingers in someone else’s direction.”
Holder repeatedly tried to avoid answering questions on the AP scandal citing his recusal from the investigation, and said the White House was not even informed that he was no longer leading the inquiry.
Holder described the leak pertaining to a foiled Al Qaeda terrorist attack as the most serious national security leak he’s ever witnessed during his career, but added that President Barack Obama did not learn about the phone records seizure until he read about it this week in newspaper reports.
“This is an ongoing matter in which I know nothing,” Holder said. “I certainly did not alert the White House, we don’t talk to the White House.”
The evasion frustrated Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.): “Saying I can’t comment because of an ongoing investigation is kind of the 5th amendment of politics for this administration.”
Holder also had trouble remembering when he had recused himself, whether his recusal was put in writing, and for a time seemed unclear as to who his vacancy left in charge of the investigation.
“I have to assume … probably 95 percent, 99 percent certain the deputy attorney general acting in my stead, was the one who authorizes the subpoena,” Holder said. The attorney general later told the committee he had been passed a note by his aide stating “we have confirmed that the deputy was the one who authorized the subpoena.”
Holder did not say whether he was suspected of being the leak, but that he recused himself because he was in possession of the same sensitive information that was leaked and that he too was questioned as part of the investigation. He said his telephone records were also examined, but Holder could not immediately recall whether he turned those records over voluntarily.
“I recused myself because I though it would be inappropriate and have a bad appearance to be a witness in the case and lead the case,” Holder said.
The investigation of AP reporters is focused on a May 2012 story in which the news agency reported the CIA had foiled a plot to bomb a U.S. airliner.
Gary Pruitt, president and CEO of the Associated Press, said editors held the story at the request of the Obama administration until there was no longer a national security concern. “Indeed, the White House was preparing to publicly announce that the bomb plot had been foiled,” Pruitt said.
“The White House had said there was no credible threat to the American people in May of 2012. The AP story suggested otherwise, and we felt that was important information and the public deserved to know it,” Pruitt said.
The subpoena collected incoming and outgoing phone numbers made during April and May 2012 from 20 different phone lines, including the House Press Gallery in the U.S. Capitol, and captured calls made by 100 reporters and editors, rather than just the phones used by the five reporters who worked on the story.
After Holder indicated that Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole was in charge of the investigation and authorized the subpoenas, an authority that is restricted to the attorney general, the committee indicated it would call Mr. Cole to testify.
Holder said Cole would be willing to appear before Congress but would not be able to answer many questions because the investigation is an ongoing matter.
A handful of Democrats on the panel signaled their support of the Justice Department for investigating the AP. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) went so far as to suggest that Congress put into law the bureaucratic regulation that allowed the government to seize the news agency’s phone records. Holder distanced himself from those remarks and said reporters should not be the focus in press leak investigations.
Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.) issued a statement just hours before Holder testified citing the Benghazi cover-up, IRS harassment and Justice Department’s “spying on reporters” saying “it is no wonder the American people are cynical of government.”
“An unsettling pattern is developing within this administration, and I will not tolerate it. There must be a full investigation into each of these cases, and where laws have been broken or lies have been told, those responsible should face the consequences of their actions,” Tipton said.
White House scandals are now under investigation by a third of all House oversight committees, while at least six government officials have been indicted by the Obama administration in government leak investigations – double the indictments brought during the Bush administration.
“The First Amendment is first for a reason,” said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner. “If the Obama administration is going after reporters’ phone records, they better have a damned good explanation.”