U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday he recused himself from the government leak investigation that resulted in the Justice Department obtaining phone records of outgoing calls made by the Associated Press last year.
According to Holder, Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole led the probe and made the decision to seek the reams of records of phone calls in what Justice Department critics are calling an overreach of government power and press intimidation.
Holder told a news conference that he steered clear of the investigation because he interacts with the press as attorney general.
He noted that investigators probing government leaks of classified information “have to exhaust all other possibilities before engaging or interacting with the media.” Holder said the leak, assumed to be involving a foiled Yemeni terrorist plot, was one of the most serious threats to national security that he has encountered.
While Holder said he doesn’t know all of the facts surrounding the investigation since he recused himself, he knows the people running the probe and is confident they made the decision to seek the phone records after exhausting all possibilities.
The attorney general has long drawn the ire of several Republicans, who previously called for him to resign in light of the Operation Fast & Furious scandal. The ATF program that attempted to put illegal weapons in the hands of Mexican cartel leaders to help track and arrest them went awry, and U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Agent Bryant Terry was killed in Arizona on the border with Mexico in 2009 with guns involved in the operation.
A number of Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Jon Cornyn, R-Tex., urged Holder to step down after accusing him of misleading Congress about what he knew about the operation during Congressional investigations into the ATF operation.
However, the Justice Department Inspector General’s office cleared Holder of any wrongdoing.
The AP scandal is sure to renew calls for Holder’s resignation among Republicans, especially from those who may be skeptical about how much the attorney general knows about the phone records. But it remains to be seen whether calls for the attorney general’s ouster will gain momentum from lawmakers who have not already said Holder should step down.
One Washington insider told International Business Times that they have not heard such rumblings yet, although the AP scandal first surfaced Monday.
The AP said Monday that it received a letter Friday from the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington informing the news wire service that Justice obtained telephone call records for phones associated with some AP staffers and from numbers at AP bureaus in New York, Connecticut, Washington, D.C., and the White House press gallery. The letter did not say incoming call records were also obtained or that investigators listened in on the conversations.
Gary Pruitt, president and CEO of the AP, wrote a letter Monday condemning Holder for what he called “a massive and unprecedented intrusion by the Department of Justice into the news gathering activities of the Associated Press.”
Pruitt also slammed the attorney general for giving the AP no notice that the records were obtained.
“We regard this action by the Department of Justice as a serious interference with AP’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news,” he wrote.
Justice is reportedly interested in an AP confidential source used in a story about a Yemen-based terror plot foiled by the CIA that was planned to take place on or around the two-year anniversary of the death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The AP said it decided to publish the story because the White House said there was no credible information that there were terror plots timed to coincide with bin Laden’s death.
The AP said it held the story after government officials told the news organization that the information contained in the report might jeopardize national security, although those concerns were eventually “allayed.”
The Obama administration requested that the AP continue to hold off on the story because the president was going to publicly announce the foiled plot, but the wire service published the report May 7.
The Justice Department probe is trying to find out the source of the leak.
CIA Director John Brennan, who did not hold that post at the time of the story, denied being the AP’s source during a February hearing. He called the leak an “unauthorized and dangerous disclosure of classified information.”
Holder is expected to be grilled about the AP scandal when he is scheduled to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. The hearing, titled “Oversight of the United States of Justice Department,” was scheduled before the scandal hit.
“Any abridgement of the First Amendment right to the freedom of the press is concerning,” U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said in an email statement to the International Business Times. “The House Judiciary Committee will thoroughly investigate this issue and will also ask Attorney General Eric Holder pointed questions about it at Wednesday’s oversight hearing . … Congress and the American people expect answers and accountability.”
Holder is also expected to face questions about inter-agency information sharing in wake of the Boston bombings and the scandal plaguing the IRS over the agency’s targeting of conservative and tea party groups in 2012, when President Obama was seeking re-election.