Aamer Madhani and Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday said he recused himself last year from a national security leak probe in which prosecutors obtained the phone records of Associated Press journalists.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Holder said he made the decision to recuse himself in the Justice Department's investigation involving a leak of classified information to the AP, because he was interviewed by the FBI in connection with the probe and had "frequent contact with the media."
Holder said he wanted to "make sure that this investigation was seen as one that was independent and to avoid even the possibility of an appearance of a conflict I made the determination to recuse myself."
Meanwhile, a White House spokesman said Tuesday that President Obama was unaware of federal prosecutors' decision to secretly obtain phone records from 20 lines belonging to the Associated Press and its journalists and learned of the claims of the Justice Department's subpoena only from news reports.
"I cannot and he cannot comment on an ongoing investigation," said White House spokesman Jay Carney, who added that the president is a "firm believer in the need for the press to be unfettered in its ability to conduct investigative reporting and to facilitate a free flow of information."
Carney said Obama also "recognizes the need for the Justice Department to investigate alleged criminal activity without undue influence."
"There is a careful balance here that must be attained," he said.
The Justice Department suggested Monday that the decision to subpoena the records came only after looking into alternative means to obtain the information it sought.
The Obama administration has moved aggressively against government officials who have leaked classified information to the media.
The Justice Department has brought more prosecutions against current or former government officials for providing classified information to the media than every previous administration combined and has convicted six government officials for leaking information.
Lucy Dalglish, dean of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism, described the Justice action as "breathtaking.''
"I cannot even imagine an explanation for why they would get to this type of intrusion,'' said Lucy Dalglish said. "You are talking about the entire national security desk of the Associated Press. That's ridiculous.
"The only reason you would do that is to intimidate the media and federal employees. An administration that values a free press would very narrowly target such an action. This is a tactic of intimidation. I have seen nothing like this.''
But Justice Department officials pushed back on Tuesday against suggestions that they've been overly aggressive in going after whistle blowers or that they stepped over a line in this case.
"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," Holder said . "The facts and the law have dictated our actions in that regard."
The AP's phone records obtained by Justice Department authorities date to April and May 2012. The AP says they may have been collected as part of an investigation into the leak of information the AP used in a May 7, 2012, story about a foiled terrorist plot on a U.S.-bound airplane, an attack that would have coincided with the one-year anniversary of the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
The decision to seek the records was made by the Deputy Attorney General James Cole and was "consistent with Department regulations and policies," according to the Justice Department statement. In a letter to Gary Pruitt, the AP's president and CEO, on Tuesday, Cole said the department is required to negotiate with a news organization before issuing subpoenas unless it would pose a threat to the integrity of the investigation.
"We take this policy, and the interests that it is intended to protect, very seriously and followed it in this matter," Cole wrote.
Holder told reporters that he was unaware of "all that went into the formulation of the subpoena" for the phone records. But he noted that "this was a very serious leak a very, very serious leak."
He added that "this is among the top two or three serious leaks that I've ever seen" and that "it put the American people at risk. Holder went on to say that he was "trying to determine who was responsible for that required very aggressive action."
Holder is scheduled to appear Wednesday before the House Judiciary Committee.
Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., promised "pointed questions'' about Justice's seizure of AP communications.
"Any abridgment of the First Amendment is very concerning,'' Goodlatte said, adding that the panel would also review reports that the IRS targeted conservative groups for scrutiny.
"Congress and the American people expect answers and accountability,'' he said