Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said Tuesday that he recused himself from involvement in a Justice Department leak investigation that secretly acquired telephone records of Associated Press journalists.
But in response to questions at a news conference, he defended the department’s conduct in probing what he described as one of the damaging leaks he has seen.
In a letter to Holder and his deputy Tuesday, a media coalition rejected what it called “an overreaching dragnet for newsgathering materials,” demanded that the Justice Department destroy the phone records and called on Congress to pass a federal shield law. The Washington Post joined more than 50 other news organizations in endorsing the letter.
Holder said he testified in June 2012 that he was interviewed by the FBI in connection with the probe into a leak of classified information to the AP. “To avoid any potential appearance of a conflict of interest,” he said, “I recused myself from this matter.”
Since then, he said, the investigation has been conducted by the FBI under the direction of the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia and the supervision of the deputy attorney general, James M. Cole.
“The decision to seek media toll records in this investigation was made by the Deputy Attorney General consistent with Department regulations and policies,” the Justice Department said in a statement shortly before Holder made his remarks.
Holder said in reply to questions that he does not know “all that went into the formulation of the subpoena” for the phone records, but that “this was a very serious leak — a very, very serious leak.” He said that since he became a prosecutor in 1976, “this is among the top two or three serious leaks that I’ve ever seen.” He added that “it put the American people at risk” and that “trying to determine who was responsible for that required very aggressive action.”
He said he was “confident that the people who are involved in this investigation ... followed all of the appropriate Justice Department regulations and did things according to DOJ rules.”
Holder spoke in a joint news conference with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to announce unrelated law enforcement actions by the government’s Medicare Fraud Strike Force.
In a sweeping and unusual move, the Justice Department secretly obtained two months’ worth of telephone records of journalists working for the Associated Press as part of a year-long investigation into the disclosure of classified information about a failed al-Qaeda plot last year. The records listed outgoing calls from more than 20 work and personal phone lines in April and May 2012, the news agency said. It said the number of employees who used those lines during that period is unknown but that more than 100 journalists work in the targeted offices.
Federal authorities obtained cellular, office and home telephone records of individual reporters and an editor, as well as records from AP general office numbers in Washington, New York and Hartford, Conn., and the main number for AP reporters covering Congress, AP President and Chief Executive Officer Gary B. Pruitt said Monday. He called the Justice Department’s actions a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into newsgathering activities.
In a letter to Pruitt dated Tuesday, Cole, the deputy attorney general supervising the probe, said the Justice Department seeks news organizations’ phone records only when there are “reasonable grounds to believe that a federal crime has been committed and that the information sought by the subpoena is essential to a successful investigation.” He said such records are subpoenaed “only after all other reasonable alternative investigative steps have been taken,” which in this case included “conducting over 550 interviews and reviewing tens of thousands of documents.”
Cole also said the department “did not seek the content of any calls.”
The media coalition, headed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and including major U.S. newspapers and television networks, responded that its members were “stunned” to learn of the Justice Department’s action.
“In the thirty years since the Department issued guidelines governing its subpoena practice as it relates to phone records from journalists, none of us can remember an instance where such an overreaching dragnet for newsgathering materials was deployed by the Department, particularly without notice to the affected reporters or an opportunity to seek judicial review,” the letter said. It charged that Justice “appears to have ignored or brushed aside almost every aspect” of its own guidelines governing subpoenas of the news media for testimony and evidence.