WASHINGTON — Attorney General Eric Holder told Congress on Wednesday that a serious national security leak required the secret gathering of telephone records at the Associated Press as he stood by an investigation in which he insisted he had no involvement.
The White House has said the president did not know about the subpoenas and has not been involved in the criminal investigation. In testimony on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Holder said he recused himself from the investigation about a year ago, although he acknowledged that he did not put the recusal in writing.
Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, whom Holder assigned to oversee the leak investigation, approved the subpoenas, Holder said.
Holder strongly defended the ongoing investigation. "I have faith in the people who are responsible for this case," he told the House Judiciary Committee. "They are aware of the rules and followed them."
But members of the committee from both parties were sharply critical of the subpoenas.
"It seems to me clear that the actions of the department have, in fact, impaired the First Amendment," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif. "Reporters who might have previously believed that a confidential source would speak to them would no longer have that level of confidence because those confidential sources are now going to be chilled in their relationship with the press."
The White House this week has sought to use the president's past support for a federal shield law to quiet the criticism over the AP subpoenas, which were issued as part of a leak investigation. Holder and Carney on Wednesday cited that record as evidence of the administration's respect for unfettered investigative reporting.
Responding to news of the gathering of AP records, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., planned to revive a 2009 media shield bill that protects journalists and their employers from having to reveal information, including the identity of sources who had been promised confidentiality.
The law does contain some exceptions in instances of national security.
"This kind of law would balance national security needs against the public's right to the free flow of information," Schumer said in a statement. "At minimum, our bill would have ensured a fairer, more deliberate process in this case."
The White House threw its support behind the push Wednesday morning. White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama "believes strongly we need to provide the protection to the media that this legislation would do."
Obama's support for the bill signaled an effort by the White House to show action in the face of heated criticism from lawmakers from both parties and news organizations about his commitment to protecting civil liberties and freedom of the press.
White House officials have said they are unable to comment publicly on the incident at the heart of the controversy because the Justice Department's leak probe essentially amounts to a criminal investigation of administration officials.