By Kerry Lester and Jamie Sotonoff
Some suburban lawmakers are demanding an explanation of why the U.S. Department of Justice aggressively pursued phone records of Associated Press journalists while investigating the release of classified information to the media about a failed al-Qaida plot last year.
Illinois Republicans and Democrats alike joined the chorus of outrage Tuesday.
"I am very concerned whenever I hear of any government secretly monitoring the press," said U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Evanston Democrat. "When it's our government, I want to know exactly how and why this happened."
U.S. Rep. Bill Foster echoed that sentiment, seeking to know the legal basis of the Justice Department's actions.
"Freedom of the press and transparency in government are at the core of our country's founding principles and are critical to our continued strength and success as a nation," said Foster, a Naperville Democrat.
Such actions are not only troubling, but unprecedented, added U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam, a Wheaton Republican.
"The Justice Department has a heavy burden to explain why this was necessary in the course of their investigation," Roskam said. "I fully expect Attorney General (Eric) Holder to face tough questioning when he appears before the House Judiciary Committee later this week, and for the Congressional Oversight process to begin soon after."
In what the news cooperative's top executive called a "massive and unprecedented intrusion," the Justice Department monitored outgoing calls for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, for general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and for the main number for the AP in the House of Representatives press gallery, according to attorneys for the AP.
However, a U.S. Justice Department official said the government struck the right balance when it subpoenaed phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors without informing the news organization.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who took over supervising the investigation after Holder recused himself, said in a letter Tuesday that the department doesn't "take lightly the decision to issue subpoenas" for phone records to the media.
"The subpoenas were limited to a reasonable period of time and did not seek the content of any calls," Cole wrote to Gary B. Pruitt, the president and chief executive officer of the news service.
U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, a Republican from Highland Park, believes that rather than recusing himself, Holder and his team should explain why, in the course of any investigation, they would take an extraordinary step like accessing the phone records of reporters.
Under Holder, the Justice Department has prosecuted more government officials for alleged leaks under the World War I-era Espionage Act than all his predecessors combined. The administration has brought indictments against five government workers for leaking information. The Defense Department is pursuing a sixth case against Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army private accused of sending classified documents to the WikiLeaks website.
A White House official said President Barack Obama wasn't involved in the AP subpoena. Obama spokesman Jay Carney told reporters the White House also didn't know that the Internal Revenue Service was giving extra scrutiny to Tea Party and other small-government advocacy groups that were seeking tax-exempt status.
The department informed the AP on Friday that it had subpoenaed records from certain telephone numbers associated with the AP. Pruitt, in a letter to the Holder Monday, called the collection of phone records a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" on the AP's right to gather news under the U.S. Constitution.
Holder said Tuesday that he recused himself "to avoid the appearance of a potential conflict of interest and to make sure that the investigation was seen as independent." He said he was interviewed as part of the U.S. investigation.
Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, wants Holder to resign because he "violated the public trust" by obtaining journalists' phone records.
Cole, in his letter to the AP, said the investigation into national security leaks included more than 550 interviews and the review of tens of thousands of documents before the Justice Department sought the AP records.
"We understand your position that these subpoenas should have been more narrowly drawn, but in fact, consistent with department policy, the subpoenas were limited in both time and scope," Cole wrote.
The AP, a nonprofit news cooperative owned by U.S. newspapers and broadcasters, said the review of its journalists' phone records may be related to a federal probe into a May 7, 2012, news report about an intelligence operation in Yemen that foiled a plot to blow up an airliner around the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden. The Justice Department letter didn't specify why it collected the records.
Cole said the subpoenas were part of the criminal investigation opened in May 2012. The Justice Department subpoenaed records from "a portion" of the months of April and May 2012.