WASHINGTON -- Members of President Barack Obama's own party slammed his Justice Department's secret gathering of reporters' phone records as inexcusable and sickening on Tuesday, suggesting that Congress may have to act to protect the freedom of the press.
The Associated Press on Monday revealed that in April and May of last year, the Justice Department had seized phone records for at least six individual AP journalists and at least 20 AP phone lines, used by up to 100 reporters, as part of a leak investigation. Sally Buzbee, the AP's Washington bureau chief, was among those targeted.
AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt said the department's actions represented "a serious interference with the AP's constitutional rights to gather and report the news."
The leak investigation involved publicly revealed details of a thwarted terrorist attack, but even with the potential national security concerns, many Democrats were not giving the commander-in-chief or Attorney General Eric Holder the full benefit of the doubt.
"First let me say, it made me sick to my stomach how broad the subpoenas were," Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) told The Huffington Post. "I do think in fairness, which I know that journalists would want, I want to hear the rationale by the Department of Justice, and I want to hear the explanation. But I think under any scenario, it would appear to have a chilling effect."
"I have trouble defending what the Justice Department did," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters on Capitol Hill. "I really believe in the First Amendment. I think it's one of the great things we have as a country. I don't know who did it, why it was done, but it's inexcusable. There's no way to justify this."
Reid added that he would "look further into whether more legislative action is needed in this regard to secure freedom of the press."
Asked if Holder's claims that national security justified the secret subpoenas mattered, Reid said bluntly, "No."
"I think someone from the Justice Department could have gone to the AP and said, 'Will you help us with this?' If they said no, fine, then they could have maybe gone a step further, but I don't think this is fair to just start subpoenaing records," said Reid.
"In my career, I've stood consistently for freedom of the press from encroachment by the national security community. I'm gonna continue to do that," he added.
Other Senate Democrats were just as quick to condemn the Justice Department's actions, while demanding an explanation.
Sen. Dick Durbin, the chamber's No. 2 Democrat, said he was "troubled" by the news. "This really goes into an area of constitutional protection," he said in a response to a question from HuffPost. "Obviously I knew nothing about this. I would certainly like to hear the administration's rationale."
Durbin added that the administration was dabbling in a "delicate area."
"We're talking about national security, we're talking about classified information, protecting sources who may be risking their lives to help us," he said. "And that's up against the principle of freedom of the press."
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told HuffPost that the matter warranted further investigation, but declined to comment on what steps should be taken absent more information about the circumstances of the probe. "[I'm] very, very concerned about it. [We] need to get more information, but it causes a significant and grave concern," he said.
"I think it's important to try and keep security leaks from occurring, and that was the context in which this occurred," Kaine added. "That is a very important and serious thing when security leaks occur, but going after the records of the press makes me very, very worried."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was among the few senators of either party who refused to go after the Justice Department just yet. "I want to see the details -- what was their rationale, why did they do it -- before offering an opinion," he told reporters. "For me to rush to a judgment without knowing all the facts is just not appropriate."
Some Democrats pointed out that Republicans like McCain might be hesitant to criticize Holder because last year many of them called for an investigation into who was behind national security leaks to the press.
"Ironically, some of my Republican colleagues were calling on the Department of Justice to get the leakers, go after the leakers," McCaskill said. "If this was classified information that was leaked, most of the Republicans have been saying for a long time, 'You need to go after people who leak classified information.'"