WASHINGTON – The Justice Department’s secret seizure of Associated Press telephone records drew scathing criticism from news organizations Tuesday while reaction from lawmakers ranged from concern to outrage.
“Americans and New Mexicans treasure a free and open press, so the department’s collection of AP phone records is very troubling,” Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said in his weekly conference call with New Mexico radio reporters.
“Congress has a responsibility of oversight in this matter, and we should investigate whether the Department of Justice actions were appropriate even in the course of investigating a potential leak of classified national security information,” Udall said.
“Following on the heels of news that the IRS was used as a political tool, this targeting of the media for political purposes is a shocking move that threatens the sanctity of the First Amendment and the accountability of our government,” said Rep. Steve Pearce, the New Mexico congressional delegation’s lone Republican.
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“These Nixonian tactics have been abhorred by all Americans throughout our history,” Pearce said. “I look forward to a transparent and thorough investigation so that Americans can know the truth.”
Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday said he recused himself from a Justice Department decision to seize the AP phone records, but defended the action as a matter of national security.
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 AP reported.
The administration had said there was no credible evidence of a threat at that time, and the AP said it delayed publishing the story at the government’s request until after the threat had passed.
The Associated Press Managing Editors, a collective of newspaper editors and executives around the country, condemned the administration of President Barack Obama for conducting a “witch hunt.”
“In a continuing witch hunt for leaks and whistle-blowers, the Obama administration has chosen to trample the First Amendment,” said APME President Brad Dennison.
“Freely tossing around the word ‘transparency,’ as this administration is prone to do, does not make it so,” Dennison said. “This action clearly demonstrates that President Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. have absolutely no interest in an open and transparent government.”
Holder, who fielded reporters’ questions on the controversy during an unrelated news conference on Medicare fraud, said the Justice Department decided last year to subpoena two months’ worth of AP telephone records as part of an investigation into how classified information about the failed al-Qaida plot in Yemen was leaked to the press.
The unusually broad subpoena included a listing of outgoing calls from more than 20 work and personal phone lines in April and May 2012, the AP said. More than 100 journalists work in the offices investigated by the Justice Department.
The Associated Press was not told about the subpoena in advance and had no chance to resist it in court.
Holder told reporters that, in June 2012, the FBI interviewed him as part of its investigation into the possible leak of classified information to the AP.
“To avoid any potential appearance of a conflict of interest,” Holder said, “I recused myself from this matter.”
Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole became responsible for the leak investigation. Despite his recusal from the case, Holder called the release of classified information in the press “a very, very serious leak.”
“I have been a prosecutor since 1976, and I have to say that this is among, if not the most serious, it is within the top two or three most serious leaks that I have ever seen,” Holder said Tuesday. “It put the American people at risk, and that is not hyperbole … and trying to determine who was responsible for that, I think, required very aggressive action.”
In February, CIA Director John Brennan provided a less-than-ominous description of the plot in testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, the AP reported. 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,” the AP reported.
Cole wrote a letter to the AP on Tuesday that said the Justice Department demands media 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 department investigators had “conducted more than 550 interviews and reviewed tens of thousands of documents” before issuing the subpoena for the AP’s phone records.
In addition to Udall, other members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation voiced dismay Tuesday about the Justice Department’s action.
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., called on Justice Department officials to “fully explain what happened.”
“The press plays a crucial watchdog role in our democracy, and those in power should tread carefully not to interfere with that role,” he said.
“While I respect the need to protect national security, I am very concerned that the Justice Department may have overreached in this case at the expense of the First Amendment,” said Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M. “It is incomprehensible to me that the DOJ would take such broad and intrusive steps without considering the chilling effect on the news media.”
Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., said he was “extremely concerned.”
“The department must provide Congress with more information regarding how obtaining such a wide range of telephone records could be appropriate,” he said.