WASHINGTON Lawmakers pounded U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday with questions about the Justice Department's secret seizure of Associated Press telephone records, and grew frustrated when he said he had limited answers.
Holder noted to the House Judiciary Committee that he had recused himself from the leak investigation that prompted the phone records seizure, so the decision was not his.
But lawmakers still pushed him on why the subpoena for the two months of phone records last year was so broad and why the Justice Department did not first try to negotiate with AP to obtain information.
"We don't know where the buck stops," said U.S. Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican.
The seizure, denounced by critics as a gross intrusion into freedom of the press, has created a backlash in Washington and led to questions over how the Obama administration is balancing the need for national security with privacy rights.
The phone records issue erupted on Monday when the AP publicly complained about the seizure. The AP said it was informed last Friday that the Justice Department had gathered records for more than 20 phone lines assigned to the news agency and its reporters, covering April and May of last year.
The subpoena was part of an investigation into whether an unauthorized leak led to an AP report in May last year about an operation, conducted by the CIA and allied intelligence agencies, that stopped a Yemen-based al Qaeda plot to bomb a U.S.-bound airplane.
Holder said on Tuesday that he recused himself from the matter to avoid a potential conflict of interest because he was interviewed by the FBI as part of the same leak investigation.
Responding to lawmakers' questions on Wednesday, Holder said he did not have specific knowledge about how the subpoena was formulated, and added that it was Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole who authorized the document.
When asked why the Justice Department did not first try to obtain the information voluntarily from the AP, as required by law in most cases, Holder noted there are exceptions to that requirement.
But he declined to elaborate.
"Recusals are such that I don't have any interaction with the people who are involved in the case," Holder said.
The AP issue came as President Barack Obama faces a barrage of criticism over his administration's handling of other issues - notably the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups for extra scrutiny.
The White House sought on Wednesday to express its commitment to press freedom. Spokesman Jay Carney said the administration is seeking to revive legislation that would give journalists legal protection when guarding their sources.
The White House has been in contact with Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York to reintroduce a 2009 bill, Carney said. Known as the Free Flow of Information Act, the bill would give federal protection to reporters who decline to release information about their sources because of a promise of confidentiality.
(Reporting By David Ingram, writing by Karey Van Hall, Editing by Frances Kerry)