WASHINGTON, May 15 -- Attorney General Eric Holder Wednesday responded to tough questions from the House Judiciary Committee about secret subpoenas to obtain Associated Press phone records by saying he was not involved in the decision but supported it.
Committee Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., led the charge, opening discussion of the scandal by questioning Holder as to why “such a broad scope” was approved for the acquisition of the AP phone records. The department seized personal and work phone records of 20 AP lines over two months after the AP published information about a foiled al-Qaida plot in Yemen to detonate a bomb on a U.S.-bound plane.
“I was recused in that matter,” Holder replied. “The decision to issue this subpoena was made by the people who are presently involved in the case. The matter is being supervised by the deputy attorney general.”
Next, Goodlatte asked why no notice was given to the AP despite rules about the notification of parties whose records are under investigation.
“There are exceptions to that rule,” Holder replied. “I do not know, however, that with regard to this particular case why that was or was not done. I simply don’t have a factual basis to answer that question.”
Finally, Goodlatte asked Holder why was it necessary to subpoena the records since AP officials said they wanted cooperate with the investigation and the fact that the AP could have been asked to hand over the records willingly.
“Again, Mr. Chairman, I don’t know what happened there,” he said.
Despite Holder’s repeated use of recusal as an excuse for not having sufficient knowledge to answer Goodlatte’s questions, he supported the Justice Department decision.
“I have faith in the people who actually were responsible for this case, that they were aware of the rules and that they followed them,” he said.
In a statement issued Tuesday, Goodlatte said his committee “will thoroughly investigate this issue” of the AP phone records breach.
“Any abridgement of the First Amendment right to the freedom of the press is concerning,” he said.
During the hearing, Holder told Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr., R-Wis., that he recused himself because he has “a degree of interaction with the press.”
In his opening remarks, Rep. John Conyers, Jr., the highest-ranking Democrat on the committee, condemned the Justice Department’s actions, saying that he was “deeply troubled by the notion that our government would secretly pursue such a broad array of media phone records over such a long period of time.” He did, however, acknowledge the importance of avoiding national-security risks.
Conyers also used the hearing to announce his intention to reintroduce the Free Flow of Information Act, also known as the federal shield law, saying that he hoped to do so “with my friends on the other side of the aisle.”
“It’s a common-sense measure that has comparable provisions in 49 states and the District of Columbia,” Conyers said.
In his opening written statement, he said the legislation “would require the government to show cause before they may compel disclosure of this sort of information from or about a news media organization.”
Fellow committee member Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., said Tuesday that he was inclined to believe the Department of Justice’s decision to obtain Associated Press phone records was a breach of press freedoms.
“I don’t know many of the details surrounding it, but it appears to me that this is a flagrant abuse of power,” Coble said.
Michael Macleod-Ball, chief of staff at the ACLU Washington office, said in an e-mail, “If Republicans and Democrats can come together to condemn the surveillance of media engaged in reputable, serious journalism without court oversight, then we will be a lot closer to passing a federal reporter shield bill than we have been since the bill failed at the close of Congress in 2008.”
Coble said that the current confusion was an extension of a recent string of Justice-Department failures.
“Well he’s had a plate full of unpleasant situations – Fast and Furious to begin with, now this,” Coble said in a phone interview. “I don’t know whether we can tie Justice in with the debacle that’s occurred with Benghazi, but it has not been a good run for the folks over at Justice.”