WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers accused the Obama administration on Wednesday of trampling on free speech rights and evading questions about the Justice Department’s secret seizure of Associated Press telephone records.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, testifying before a House of Representatives panel, provided limited responses on the issue, noting he had been recused from the probe into a government leak that led to the records seizure.
Lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee became frustrated that Holder could not answer why the subpoena to obtain the records 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 of phone records last year became public on Monday when the AP complained about it. Critics have called it a gross intrusion into freedom of the press and questioned the Obama administration’s national security justification for such a broad sweep.
Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, said it was clear to her that the Justice Department impaired the First Amendment right to free speech.
“Reporters who might previously have believed that a confidential source will speak to them will no longer have that level of confidence,” Lofgren said.
Apparently trying to counter the criticism, the White House sought on Wednesday to show its commitment to a robust media, saying it wants to revive legislation that would give journalists legal protection when guarding their sources.
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 2012 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.
The AP issue emerged 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.
Holder said on Tuesday that he recused himself from the AP matter to avoid a potential conflict of interest because he had been 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.
Lawmakers asked Holder to ensure that Cole would submit to their questions about the subpoena. The attorney general cautioned that Cole might be limited because he is the lead prosecutor on the open investigation into the leak, but he said he would pass along the request.
Holder did seek to address the panel’s complaints in some form, saying that after the investigation wraps up, he would study the Justice Department’s actions in the probe.
“Given the attention that it has generated, some kind of after-action analysis would be appropriate, and I will pledge to this committee, to the American people, that I will engage in such an analysis,” Holder said.
In a move apparently designed to mollify critics, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration is seeking to revive a 2009 media shield bill that had been sponsored by Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York.
Carney declined to comment on the timing of the White House’s renewed interest in the bill.
“The White House has been in contact with Senator Schumer and we are glad to see that that legislation will be reintroduced because he believes strongly that we need to provide the protections to the media that this legislation would do,” he said.
The bill, known as the Free Flow of Information Act, would likely not have prevented the AP phone records seizure.
It would give federal protection to reporters who decline to release information about their sources because of a promise of confidentiality but would also allow national security, law enforcement, and fair trial needs to outweigh journalists’ rights to keep their sources confidential, Schumer’s office said.
“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 on Wednesday. “At minimum, our bill would have ensured a fairer, more deliberate process in this case.”
Reuters was one of nearly 50 news organizations that signed a letter to Holder on Tuesday complaining about the AP phone record seizures.
Reporting By David Ingram, writing by Karey Van Hall, Editing by Frances Kerry