WASHINGTON -- Top advisers to the president defended the Obama administration on Tuesday from criticism that it had drastically over-extended its authority in seizing telephone records for the Associated Press as part of a leak investigation.
In dual briefings that overlapped for several minutes, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and Attorney General Eric Holder remained vague when asked why the Department of Justice had subpoenaed the records of up to 100 AP reporters and editors from a two-month period. In some instances, their defense of the department's actions could be distilled down to a simple plea: trust us, we mean no harm.
As head of the department investigating the alleged leak of classified intel -- which exposed that a would-be terrorist bomber had actually been a CIA undercover agent -- Holder was in a particularly uncomfortable bind Tuesday. The AG pointed out that he had recused himself from the case, having also been interviewed by investigators as a potential source of the leak. Without his involvement, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia was leading the probe under the supervision of the deputy attorney general, who would have ultimately authorized the subpoena.
Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole wrote a letter to the AP on Tuesday arguing that the subpoenas -- which covered over 20 different phone lines -- "were limited in both time and scope." Cole’s letter said that DOJ conducted 550 interviews and reviewed tens of thousands of documents before it subpoenaed the AP.
While Holder said that he did not know the details of exactly what went into the decision to subpoena AP phone records, he was “confident” that those who were involved acted appropriately and followed all the rules and regulations.
“The people who are involved in this investigation who I’ve known for a great many years and who I’ve worked with for a great many years followed all the appropriate Justice Department regulations and did things according to DOJ rules,” Holder said. “Based on the people that I know -- I don’t know about the facts -- but based on the people that I know, I think that subpoena was done in accordance with DOJ regs.”
“I don’t know all that went into the formulation of the subpoena. This was a serious leak, a very, very serious leak,” Holder said, saying it was the most serious he's seen since he became a prosecutor in 1979. “It put the American people at risk, and that is not hyperbole, it put the American people at risk, and trying to determine who was responsible for that, I think, required very aggressive action.”
Asked how speaking about the operation could have put people at risk when the CIA was undercover within al Qaeda the whole time, Holder declined to comment.
The press conference represented a delicate attempt on the part of the administration to regain its footing with the press, at a time when it finds itself engulfed in controversies beyond just its handling of national security leaks. Across town, Carney was trying to restore standing as well.
He steadfastly refused to address the specific decision to subpoena AP phone records, stating that he couldn't and didn't want to prejudice an ongoing case. But he nevertheless urged the press to give the administration the benefit of doubt. The president, he said, was a committed advocate of First Amendment rights -- the word "unfettered" was used multiple times to describe how Obama believes the press should operate -- and a supporter of shield laws to protect a reporter-source relationship. But a balance was needed, he added.
"He is also as a citizen and commander in chief committed to the proposition that we cannot allow classified information that can do harm to our national security interests ... to be leaked," said Carney. "That is a balance that has to be struck."
The journalists in the room were largely unimpressed. Under the Obama administration, it was noted, six government officials have been indicted in leak-related cases under this administration, twice as many as in all other administrations combined. Former administration officials have defended the president against accusations that he has a record of hostility to the fourth estate, citing in part the same need for balance that was Carney referenced.
"These leak investigations are referred to the DOJ on a case-by-case basis. Some of these cases are really old. It's not some political call," said Tommy Vietor, a former top national security spokesman for the White House. "The critique from the press is mind blowingly incoherent. We're constantly accused of leaking shit to make Obama look good. When DOJ looks into it, suddenly that's not OK?"
Vietor was referencing, in part, Republicans who have jumped on the revelation of the AP subpoenas to criticize the White House, despite having attacked it for selectively leaking intelligence to make the president look good. On Tuesday, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called on Holder to resign hours before Holder revealed that he had actually recused himself from the case.
But the criticism isn't coming strictly from the conservative side of the ideological divide. Democrats too registered their disappointment on Tuesday. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) defended the administration on a variety of fronts during his Tuesday press availability, from accusations that the IRS targeted conservative groups to continued griping over the handling of the attacks at the consulate in Benghazi. But he couldn't bring himself to play good soldier on the AP subpoenas.
"I have trouble defending what the Justice Dept did," said Reid. "There's no way to justify this."
Sam Stein's wife works for the Obama administration on matters of congressional oversight.