Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Wednesday described the leak about a foiled terrorist plot in Yemen to The Associated Press as a “very, very serious” matter that “put the American people at risk,” but he did not remember when he recused himself from the investigation into it, did not put his recusal in writing and never told the White House.
Mr. Holder said his knowledge of sensitive information in the case, in which the Justice Department secretly subpoenaed the telephone records of at least 20 AP editors and reporters, made him a potential leaker and required that he remove himself from the probe.
During an often rancorous hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, Mr. Holder said he was aware that the news agency had been targeted but was “not familiar with the way the subpoena had been structured.”
“I am not familiar with the reasons why. I am simply not a part of the investigation,” he said, adding that the approval of the subpoena came from Deputy Attorney General James Cole.
Mr. Holder also told the committee that he did not know why the Justice Department immediately resorted to a subpoena for the phone records instead of first attempting to negotiate with the news agency to turn over the information.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, California Democrat, pointed out that the phone records “would not disappear if the AP had been notified.”
During one heated exchange, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, suggested Mr. Holder travel to the President Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Mo., where he could take a picture of the famous sign that sat on Mr. Truman’s desk that read: “The buck stops here.”
“There doesn’t appear to be any acceptance of responsibility for things that have gone wrong,” Mr. Sensenbrenner told Mr. Holder.
AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt revealed Monday that a subpoena had been served on the news agency seeking the telephone records of editors and reporters at several locations and even the House press gallery. He described the subpoena as a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” of the news agency’s freedom of press rights.
Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican, said any abridgment of the freedom of the press was “very concerning.”
While the panel’s ranking Democrat, Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, had praise for Mr. Holder, he said he was troubled the government sought such a broad array of phone records from AP.
Concerns have been raised by congressional Republicans on whether Obama administration officials leaked secret information to the media as part of an effort to pump up President Obama’s national security credentials in an election year.
“It’s an ongoing matter and an ongoing matter in which I know nothing,” Mr. Holder said, although he defended the effort to gather the AP phone records as part of the search for the source of the leak.
He told the committee he had turned over his own phone records as a part of the investigation. The AP subpoena was obtained as part of an investigation headed by U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen in Washington.
The story in question was published May 7, 2012. The article, written by AP reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, said the CIA had derailed a planned attack by al Qaeda-backed terrorists in Yemen. The attack would have used an upgraded version of the device worn by the “underwear bomber” who unsuccessfully sought to down a U.S.-bound commercial jetliner on Christmas Day in 2009.
The AP story was published a day before Mr. Obama planned to announce publicly that the terrorist attack had been foiled. Al Qaeda planned the attack to coincide with the first anniversary of the May 2, 2011, killing of Osama bin Laden.
In response to revelations that the Justice Department had seized two months’ worth of phone records from members of the AP without their knowledge, Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, sent a letter to Mr. Holder on Wednesday seeking more information on the attorney general’s involvement in the matter and the department’s rationale for doing so.
“The regulations — important guarantees of press freedom — should result in modest use of such subpoenas. … I want to understand fully your involvement in this matter: what you knew, when you knew, what you authorized and what basis you had for making the decisions you did,” he said. “What we are seeing now is an aggressive investigation into the journalists who reported the leaked information.”
Mr. Cornyn, a member of both the Senate Finance and Judiciary committees, said the Justice Department should be more aggressive in its investigation of the leak, and out of proper regard for the First Amendment, less sweeping in its intrusion into the constitutionally protected activity of those who reported the leak.