Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Tuesday defended the Justice Department’s use of its subpoena power to monitor the telephone records of editors and reporters at The Associated Press in a leak investigation, but said he was unaware of the details because he had recused himself from the leak case.
Mr. Holder said the leak of sensitive information to AP was “very, very serious” and “put the American people at risk,” although he did not elaborate.
Three former attorneys general said that while the Justice Department is obligated to investigate leaks of classified information that may pose a national security threat, such probes are unusual and generally narrowly focused.
Former Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey described the seizure of the AP phone records as “reprehensible conduct” and said it appeared that the Obama administration wanted to muzzle news accounts contradicting its “narrative” that al Qaeda terrorists were on the run.
“The underlying facts with regard to the AP story suggest that there was a somewhat broader gathering of data than should’ve ever been authorized,” Mr. Mukasey, who worked for President George W. Bush, told Fox News.
Mr. Mukasey said it would be troubling if efforts were made to “discourage” people from talking to reporters.
‘Never more disturbed’
Among others questioning the search was Lucy Dalglish, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, who described the scope of the subpoena for the AP records as “breathtaking.”
Ms. Dalglish, former executive director of the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press, said subpoenas historically have been more targeted toward a specific reporter’s phone records. She said the chief purpose of the AP search could have been only the intimidation of government employees and journalists.
“No administration that values the free flow of information to the public would use this tactic. And I think the public and Congress will probably conclude the Justice Department has overplayed its hand. Notice is only required for phone records. It is highly likely they also have credit card receipts, airplane records and other digital information about all of these journalists. I’ve never been more disturbed about a government subpoena,” she said.
The telephone records of at least 20 AP editors and reporters were sought by the subpoena in an effort to expose the leak. The subpoena targeted a story by Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, which described a CIA operation in Yemen that stopped an al Qaeda-backed plot to detonate a newly designed bomb on a U.S.-bound airplane.
Mr. Holder said he was confident the prosecutors and investigators involved in the AP inquiry “followed all appropriate DOJ regulations,” but did not know what facts led to the formation of the subpoena.
He said he withdrew from the inquiry to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest, and his top deputy, James Cole, “ultimately authorized the subpoena” to secretly obtain the AP phone records.
“This was a very serious leak. I’ve been a prosecutor since 1976 and I have to say this is among, if not the most serious, it is within the top two or three most-serious leaks that I have ever seen,” Mr. Holder said. “It put the American people at risk. That is not hyperbole. It put the American people at risk. And trying to determine who is responsible for that required very aggressive action.”