AP probe: White House claims no knowledge, Justice Dept defends actions

The White House has denied any prior knowledge of the Justice Department’s investigation of the Associated Press. US Attorney General has defended the probe, saying the “aggressive action” was in response to national security being put at risk.

Just hours after the AP reported on Monday that the Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors employed by the news agency, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said, “Other than press reports, we have no knowledge of any attempt by the Justice Department to seek phone records of the AP.”

"We are not involved in decisions made in connection with criminal investigations, as those matters are handled independently by the Justice Department,” said Carney. “Any questions about an ongoing criminal investigation should be directed to the Department of Justice.”

Meanwhile, US Attorney General Eric Holder defended the probe during a Tuesday afternoon press conference, but said he recused himself from the investigation because he was interviewed earlier by the FBI on the matter and didn’t want to provoke a conflict of interest.

"I don't know all that went into the formulation of the subpoena,” Holder said, adding that actions were taken after a leak was of great severity was discovered that “put the American people at risk.”

"I'm confident that people involved in this investigation...did all things according to DOJ rules,” said Holder, although he admitted that some matters regarding the probe were beyond his knowledge. Holder also admitted that a deputy attorney general approved of the probe. Later on Tuesday, US Deputy Attorney General James Cole declined a request made by the AP to return the seized phone records.

According to the AP, Cole told the agency that the records were "limited to a reasonable period of time" and did not seek the content of any calls.

"These records have been closely held and reviewed solely for the purposes of this ongoing criminal investigation," Cole wrote.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP)

The remarks from both the Justice Department and the White House were made after the AP sent a letter to the attorney general lashing out at the latest revelation. In it, AP President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Pruitt condemned the probe as a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into how news organizations operate.

"There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters,” Pruitt wrote.

Before the Justice Department weighed in on the scandal, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle were up in arms over the news. Even as the administration attests that the White House and Justice Department weren’t in cahoots, politicians that are peeved by the matter are making it known that the Obama administration isn’t off the hook. Regardless of who approved the probe, many are saying the blame ultimately falls on the president, who campaigned on a promise of transparency yet oversees an administration that investigates journalists.

Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), a staunch constitutionalist, told Fox News on Monday, “This sounds like a president somewhat drunk on power, not cautious about how he uses power.”

Obama, Paul told Fox host Sean Hannity, is “using the power of his government to investigate his enemies, he’s tapping the phones of the press, and it turns out last year he signed legislation that allows him to detain an American without a trial and send them to Guantanamo Bay.”

The White House is indeed currently fighting a lawsuit filed by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges and others that challenges that law, the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act. Under Section 1021 of the NDAA, the president can authorize the indefinite detention of US citizens based off of vaguely defined associations with terrorists. Hedges said the NDAA puts him at risk of being sent to a facility like Guantanamo because his line of work regularly requires him to correspond with persons considered terrorists by the US government.

Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.(Reuters / Kevin Lamarque)

I met regularly with leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza. I used to visit Palestine Liberation Organization leaders, including Yasser Arafat and Abu Jihad, in Tunis when they were branded international terrorists. I have spent time with the Revolutionary Guard in Iran and was in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey with fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. All these entities were or are labeled as terrorist organizations by the U.S. government,” Hedges wrote in protest last year. “I have had dinner more times than I can count with people whom this country brands as terrorists. But that does not make me one.”

The Obama administration’s attorneys have fought relentlessly to keep the NDAA on the books, even filing appeals to petition a federal judge after Section 1021 was deemed unconstitutional. Now with the AP’s latest revelation, though, members of the same Congress that approved of that bill only a year-and-a-half ago are attacking the White House.

This is obviously disturbing,” House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-California) told reporters. “Coming within a week of revelations that the White House lied to the American people about the Benghazi attacks and the IRS targeted conservative Americans for their political beliefs, Americans should take notice that top Obama administration officials increasingly see themselves as above the law and emboldened by the belief that they don’t have to answer to anyone.”

In a tweet, Issa added that he found the revelation “disturbing.”

"Whether it is secretly targeting patriotic Americans participating in the electoral progress or reporters exercising their First Amendment rights, these new revelations suggest a pattern of intimidation by the Obama Administration,” weighed in Douglas Heye, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Virginia).

Michael Steel, a representative for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), said, “The First Amendment is first for a reason. If the Obama Administration is going after reporters’ phone records, they better have a damned good explanation.”

Even members of Obama’s own Democratic Party were disturbed by the AP’s report.

The burden is always on the government when they go after private information – especially information regarding the press or its confidential sources,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) told reporters. “I want to know more about this case, but on the face of it, I am concerned that the government may not have met that burden. I am very troubled by these allegations and want to hear the government’s explanation.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) told the AP the Justice Department "must be forthcoming with the facts as soon as possible."

The AP reported that the investigation is likely in regards to a May 2012 exclusive the agency published in which a covert CIA operation was exposed. Earlier this year, CIA Director John Brennan told Congress that the FBI asked him if he was the source for the AP article. Brennan denied the allegation and said the release of information pertaining to a terror plot was an "unauthorized and dangerous disclosure of classified information."

The AP wrote Monday that the letter notifying the agency of the investigation arrived last Friday, and acknowledged that subpoenas were used to obtain phone records from reporters and editors.

Matthew Miller, a former top spokesman for Holder, defended the department’s actions to reporters for the Huffington Post.

"This is how leaks get investigated," Miller said. "Leaking classified information is a crime, and there are usually only two parties who know who committed the crime, the leaker and the reporter. Getting access to phone records allows investigators to see who the possible source might have been and confront them with evidence of a crime."

During Tuesday’s press conference at the White House, Carney fielded a handful of questions on the probe by repeatedly differing journalists to a statement summarizing the president’s thoughts.

I can tell you that the president feels strongly that we need the press to be able to be unfettered in its pursuit of investigative journalism,” Carney said. “He also believes strongly as a citizen and president on the need to ensure classified information is not leaked.”

Journalist Afshin Rattansi spoke to RT, expressing his disturbance at how fewer and fewer outlets exist in the US for people to reveal information or expose wrongdoings, as they are being systematically removed one way or another in line with an age-old US tradition:

"Let’s face it – no whistle-blower or source is now going to call the AP desk in New York or Washington DC."