White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and Attorney General Eric Holder held simultaneous press conferences on Tuesday where they were berated by reporters' questions about the Justice Department's two-month seizure of Associated Press reporters' and editors' phone records in 2012.
Speaking at a joint DOJ-Health and Human Services news conference about the government's efforts to combat Medicare fraud, Holder was unable to avoid questions about the DOJ's subpoena of AP journalists' phone and fax records from the House and Senate media lines, and the AP offices in New York, Washington, D.C., and Hartford, Conn.
Holder claims that what the AP executives are calling a "massive and unprecedented intrusion," was, in the opinion of the DOJ, "aggressive action to investigate leaks that put the American people at risk. … We're not trying to get the press, and it's not hyperbole … Americans' lives were at risk." Holder added that he recused himself from the investigation – he's unsure of the exact date – and handed it off to Deputy Attorney General James Cole as soon as the investigation into the leaks to the AP were underway, because he didn't want to project any appearance of impropriety.
"To the extent that actors in government broke regulations, broke laws, we've held people accountable. It's incumbent upon us to hold people accountable," said Holder, who added that Cole has written the DOJ's response to the AP, which "contradicts a number of assertions in the AP's letter," and should soon be available to the media.
Holder is scheduled to testify Wednesday before the House Judiciary Committee, where Republicans are expected to question the attorney general about the IRS' targeting of conservative groups and the subpoena of the AP's phone records.
Carney attempted to deflect the press corps' questions to the DOJ, but was cornered by reporters who noted that the Obama administration's actions ultimately rest at the feet of President Obama. Many were also miffed by Carney's assertion that the president is a supporter of shield laws (there's no federal shield law that protects reporters), when his administration has prosecuted twice as many leakers as all previous administrations combined. "This is not fair and balanced," said one reporter.
In a letter sent to Holder on Monday, Gary Pruitt, the president and CEO of the AP, said the government "sought and obtained information far beyond anything that could be justified by any specific investigation," and demanded the return of their employees' phone records and the destruction of all copies.
According to the AP, the government seized records from more than 20 separate telephone lines in April and May 2012, which were likely used by more than 100 journalists who were covering a "wide array of stories about the government and other matters."
"There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of the Associated Press and its reporters. These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP's newsgathering operations, and disclose information about AP's activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know," Pruitt said.
Throughout Tuesday afternoon's press briefing, Carney reiterated Obama's support for reporters' "unfettered access to carry out their investigative reporting," and wouldn't say whether the White House will ever provide comment about the investigations into the AP.
"The president wants the Justice Department to investigate alleged illegal and criminal actions, but it would be unholy for me to have answers to your questions, because of the DOJ investigation," said Carney, who added that the president only learned about the DOJ's actions through media reports released on Monday.
Carney also said the White House would have never known about the investigation, "it would be wrong if we did know." He commented that the president hasn't spoken to Holder about the investigations, has no plans to ask him to resign, and even said the president has confidence in Holder and the entire DOJ team.
"The president is mindful of the need for secret and classified information to stay secret and classified," Carney said. He noted many times that the president is most concerned about leaks that could "endanger lives and put national security at risk."
Chuck Todd, chief White House correspondent for NBC News, was critical of Carney's claims that Obama supports shield laws that protect the press when the president "killed the legislation in 2009," even though he claimed to support a federal shield law bill as a senator in 2007 and 2008. "You guys will claim everything can fall under the rubrics of national security," said Todd, referencing the administration's ability to investigate anyone they want to and then not provide comment.
Carney also said it's unknown if other reporters or news agencies were also investigated. Members of the press corps suggested to Carney that reporters cannot be unfettered if they have to worry about having their phone records seized by the administration.
Richard Benedetto, a former White House correspondent for USA Today and adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C., told the CP on Tuesday that, in his opinion, it would be unlikely that the president wasn't aware of the DOJ's investigation into the AP, and added that "this story has a potential of being a real problem for the administration."
Benedetto mentioned the media's criticisms of the Bush administration's action of looking into the phone records of suspected terrorists and their furor over the administration's actions, and the questions about whether they received a court order. He added that, in the AP case, reporters don't know if the DOJ followed all of the rules because there's no transparency.
He also noted that the DOJ's investigations into the AP could be a turning point for the media and might dramatically change their coverage of the White House.
"The story goes to the heart of reporters," Benedetto said. "It hits home and reporters are starting to worry … They're asking questions and the press is being much more inquisitive and persistent."