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Congress to grill Attorney General Holder over search of Associated Press phone records

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Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle were asking questions Tuesday about the Justice Department’s subpoena of telephone records involving editors and reporters at The Associated Press, with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. expected to be asked about the matter during an long-scheduled hearing before the House Judiciary Committee.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Robert Goodlatte, Virginia Republican, said he plans to ask Mr. Holder “pointed questions” about the issue when he testifies Wednesday during an oversite hearing before the full panel.

Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, questioned whether Mr. Holder signed off on the seizure of the AP telephone records.

“The department’s regulations state that prosecutors should obtain the attorney general’s personal sign off when a free press is at stake, so the Obama administration needs to be transparent with its rationale for such a sweeping intrusion and detail whether the process outlined in regulation and the U.S. Attorney’s manual were followed and justified for national security,” he said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont Democrat and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, also had questions.

“The burden is always on the government when they go after private information — especially information regarding the press or its confidential sources,” he said. “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.”

Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, described the monitoring of AP telephones call, including a line in the House press gallery as “obviously disturbing.’

“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,” Mr. Issa said.

He said he intended to work with “my fellow House Chairmen on an appropriate response to Obama administration officials.”

The seizure of the records was disclosed Monday by AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt, who described the action in a letter to Mr. Holder as a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into news-gathering operations. Mr. Pruitt, in the letter, said the seized records included phone numbers of the AP bureaus in New York, Washington DC, Hartford, Connecticut and at the House of Representatives, along with the home phones and cell phones of reporters.

“We regard this action by the Department of Justice as a serious interference with AP’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news,” he said.

U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. in Washington, D.C. acknowledged in a letter to the AP that his office had obtained the documents, but did not say why. His office, however, is investigating the leak of classified information about a foiled terror plot in Yemen in 2012 — which was detailed by the AP in a story by Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman. Their story described a CIA operation in Yemen that stopped an al Qaeda-backed plot to detonate a bomb on a U.S.-bound airplane.

Mr. Machen’s spokesman, Bill Miller, takes seriously its obligations to follow all applicable laws, federal regulations, and Justice Department policies when issuing subpoenas for phone records of media organizations.

“Those regulations require us to make every reasonable effort to obtain information through alternative means before even considering a subpoena for the phone records of a member of the media. We must notify the media organization in advance unless doing so would pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation,” he said.

“Because we value the freedom of the press, we are always careful and deliberative in seeking to strike the right balance between the public interest in the free flow of information and the public interest in the fair and effective administration of our criminal laws,” he said.

Former Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, who served under President George W. Bush, described the seizure of the AP telephone records as “reprehensible conduct,” adding that it appeared the administration wanted to muzzle news accounts contradicting their “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,” he told Fox News.

The Justice Department reportedly gathered two months of AP phone records and other information after the news service published a story detailing how a terrorist bombing plot in Yemen had been foiled. The story broke a day before President Obama planned to release the news, and the Justice probe apparently was designed to learn who leaked information about the plot to the AP.

FBI agents have questioned Mr. Holder, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and CIA Director John Brennan as part of the Yemen leak investigation.

Lucy Dalglish, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, described the scope of the subpoena for the phone records as “breathtaking.”

“I can’t think of another case where the Justice Department has sought the records of virtually an entire newsroom,” said Ms. Dalglish, former executive director of the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press. “These subpoenas have historically been more targeted toward a specific reporter’s phone records. The chief purpose of this approach can only be intimidation of both 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 Obama administration has aggressively pursued leak investigations and brought more criminal prosecutions than any previous administration.

 

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