Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters on Tuesday that he recused himself early on in the Department of Justice’s investigation of the Associated Press and possible national security leaks.
Holder was speaking at what was meant to be a Health and Human Services announcement of stricter rules on going after Medicare fraud. Instead, Holder found himself answering a slew of questions related to the DOJ’s subpoena of multiple phone records belonging to the AP. In sum, twenty phone lines were pulled, including the home phone numbers of several reporters. Asked about his role in the matter, Holder told the assembled crowd that he had recused himself early on “to avoid a potential conflict of interest” as the FBI had previously interviewed him in relation to the case.
Holder also identified Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole as the Justice Department official who originally signed off on the subpoena of AP’s phone records, in conjunction with the U.S. Attorney in Washington, DC. Holder referred several questions about the investigation to a letter the Deputy Attorney General sent to AP in response to the scathing letter the wire agency released yesterday. In the letter, Cole sought to reassure the AP that their records “have not and will not be provided for use in any other investigations.” However, the Justice Department will not return the records to the AP as requested.
The Attorney General insisted that he was a strong advocate of protecting the First Amendment rights of the press, saying that sweeping, overbroad subpoenas are not a matter of administration policy:
HOLDER: That is certainly not the policy of this administration. If you will remember in 2009 when I was — my confirmation hearings, I testified in favor of a reporter shield law. We as an administration took a position in favor of such a law. It didn’t get the necessary support up on the Hill. It’s something this administration still thinks would be appropriate. We have investigated cases on the basis of the facts. Not as a result of a policy to get the press or to do anything of that nature. The facts and the law have dictated our actions in that regard.
While refusing to say exactly what was leaked to prompt the investigation into the AP, Holder lent credence to the idea that it was national security related, calling the subject matter a “very, very serious leak.” The lead “put the American people at risk,” Holder said. “That is not hyperbole. It put the American people at risk.” The Associated Press in 2009 published a story on a foiled terrorist plot in Yemen, which gave details related to a double agent planted among Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and is likely the cause of the investigation.
“I’m proud of what we have done,” Holder said of the administration’s civil rights policies on the whole. “We have been, I think, very aggressive in our enforcement of the civil rights laws.” Despite that pride, the administration has been forced to confront a slew of troubling civil liberties issues in the recent weeks, including the use of actions deemed torture at Guantanamo Bay, the ongoing targeted killing program, the IRS possibly improperly targeting conservative groups, and now the possible curtailing of the free press.