Published May 15, 2013
Attorney General Eric Holder will likely face aggressive questioning at a hearing by the Republican-led House Judiciary Committee Wednesday amid the outcry over the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at The Associated Press and other scandals within the Obama administration.
The panel's chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said committee members are planning on asking Holder "pointed" questions about the decision to obtain two months' worth of telephone records of as many as 20 of the wire service's reporters and editors.
"Congress and the American people expect answers and accountability," Goodlatte said.
Holder's prepared testimony, obtained by Fox News, does not address any of the recent controversies. It is focused on the department's mission as well as the recent Boston terror attack.
Goodlatte, though, says the committee will also ask Holder about the targeting of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service, which is now the focus of an investigation by the Justice Department.
As for the AP controversy, Holder said Tuesday that his deputy "ultimately authorized the subpoena" to secretly obtain the records, and that he had recused himself early on in the related investigation into leaks of sensitive information that "put the American people at risk."
Word that Deputy Attorney General James Cole is directing the FBI probe came as the White House expressed confidence in Holder and the department following revelations that it had seized the phone records in an effort to find out who leaked confidential information to it. Republicans pointed to the incident in renewing calls for Holder's resignation.
Holder said Tuesday that the leak in question, which the AP has suggested involved a foiled terror attack originating in Yemen, was "very, very serious," but declined to elaborate. He said it was among the most serious he'd seen in his career and that it "required very aggressive action."
"It put the American people at risk," he told reporters during a press conference Tuesday.
AP President Gary Pruitt called out the Justice Department in a statement posted Tuesday night on the media organization’s website.
“Rather than talk to us in advance, they seized these phone records in secret, saying that notifying us would compromise their investigation,” Pruitt said.
He added, “They say this secrecy is important for national security. It is always difficult to respond to that, particularly since they still haven’t told us specifically what they are investigating.”
During his press conference this morning, Holder said the investigation followed "all of the appropriate Department of Justice regulations."
"As the Attorney General testified in June 2012, he was interviewed by the FBI in connection with the investigation into the unauthorized disclosure of classified information," a DOJ official told Fox News earlier.
"To avoid any potential appearance of a conflict of interest, the Attorney General recused himself from this matter," said the official, who spoke on background. "Since that time, this investigation has been conducted by the FBI under the direction of the U.S. Attorney and the supervision of the Deputy Attorney General, who has served as the Acting Attorney General overseeing this investigation. The decision to seek media toll records in this investigation was made by the Deputy Attorney General consistent with Department regulations and policies."
The year-long Justice Department probe included the seizure of two months’ worth of what the AP said included cellular, office and home telephone records of individual reporters and an editor; AP general office numbers in Washington, New York and Hartford, Conn.; and the main number for AP reporters covering Congress.
Republicans, meanwhile, are calling on Holder to resign following news of the probe.
"Freedom of the press is an essential right in a free society," RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement.
"The First Amendment doesn’t request the federal government to respect it; it demands it," Priebus said. "Attorney General Eric Holder, in permitting the Justice Department to issue secret subpoenas to spy on Associated Press reporters, has trampled on the First Amendment and failed in his sworn duty to uphold the Constitution."
The Obama administration has been aggressive in going after leaks of classified information, prosecuting six officials - more than under all previous administrations combined.
In an initial letter to Holder, Pruitt, accused the Justice Department of seeking information beyond what could be justified.
“There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters,” Pruitt wrote to Holder. “These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP’s newsgathering operations, and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.”
The White House said Tuesday that it had no knowledge of the investigation and referred all inquiries to the Justice Department.
"The president is a strong defender of the First Amendment," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said during a press conference. "He also of course recognizes the need for the Justice Department to investigate alleged criminal activity without undue influence."
"I cannot, and he [President Obama] cannot, comment specifically on an ongoing criminal investigation," Carney said.
Fox News' Mike Levine and the Associated Press contributed to this report.