WASHINGTON — Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday strongly defended the far-reaching inquiry in the disclosure of security information by the Associated Press and said American lives were jeopardized when the wire service revealed details of a foiled plot to detonate a bomb on a U.S.-bound airplane last year.
"It put the American people at risk," he said, "and that is not hyperbole. And trying to determine who is responsible for that requires aggressive action." He added that this was one of the "top two or three most serious leaks I've ever seen."
The attorney general appointed Ronald C. Machen Jr., the U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., to investigate the national security leak. Holder said he recused himself from the matter after the FBI interviewed him in the case sometime last May or June. In his place, he said, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole has been overseeing the investigation at the Department of Justice.
Because he stepped aside, Holder said he was not familiar with the status or details of the ongoing inquiry, but defended it nevertheless. He said it is being carried out "in conformance with DOJ regulations" and added, "I'm confident the people who are involved in this investigation followed all of the Justice Department regulations and did things according to DOJ rules."
The government's wide-ranging information gathering from the news cooperative has created a bipartisan political headache for President Barack Obama, with prominent Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill expressing outrage, along with press freedom groups.
The government obtained the records from April and May of 2012 for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists, including main offices. AP's top executive called the action a massive and unprecedented intrusion into how news organizations do their work.
Federal investigators are trying to hunt down the sources of information for a May 7, 2012, AP story that disclosed details of a CIA operation in Yemen to stop an airliner bomb plot around the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Condemnation of the government's seizure of the AP phone records came from both political parties.
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus called on Holder to resign, saying he had "trampled on the First Amendment."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said "the burden is always on the government when they go after private information, especially information regarding the press or its confidential sources. . . . On the face of it, I am concerned that the government may not have met that burden."
Declared the No. 2 Democrat in the House, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland: "This is activity that should not have happened and must be checked from happening again."
Two Senate Democrats from one of the states where the AP records were seized — Connecticut — also said it was important to address the reasons for an action that they said could have a chilling effect on freedom of the press.
"I am concerned that this investigative action may fail to meet the government's high burden when invasion of privacy and chilling effects on First Amendment rights are at risk," said Richard Blumenthal, also a member of the Judiciary Committee. "The Department of Justice must be forthcoming with the facts as soon as possible."
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., added: "It's incumbent on the Justice Department to explain why they've seized telephone records from reporters and editors at the Associated Press so that their actions don't have a chilling effect on the freedom of the press."
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney said the president had learned about the phone records only Monday, through news reports. Citing the ongoing criminal investigation, Carney said it would be improper for Obama or the White House to weigh in.
"The president feels strongly that we need the press to be able to be unfettered in its pursuit of investigative journalism," Carney said, noting that Obama, as a U.S. senator, had pushed legislation to protect journalists' freedom. "He is also mindful of the need of secret and classified information to remain secret and classified, in order to protect our national security interests.
"There is a careful balance here that needs to be maintained."
In the 30 years since the Justice Department issued guidelines governing subpoena practices relating to phone records from journalists, "none of us can remember an instance where such an overreaching dragnet for newsgathering materials was deployed," said the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The American Society of News Editors called the action "outrageous" and "appalling."
The Obama administration has aggressively investigated disclosures of classified information to the media and has brought six cases against people suspected of providing classified information, more than under all previous presidents combined.
Information from the Associated Press and McClatchy Tribune was used in this report.