The White House is trying to distance itself from a bombshell report that the Department of Justice collected telephone records of Associated Press journalists in an investigation into leaks of classified information.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters at an tense press conference on Tuesday that there would be no comment on the investigation, but stressed the president is a “strong defender of the First Amendment and a firm believer in the need for the press to be unfettered in its ability to conduct investigative reporting and facilitate the free flow of information.”
He said the White House had no knowledge other than press reports of any attempt by the Justice Department to seek the phone numbers.
“We are not involved at the White House in any decisions made in connection with ongoing criminal investigations as those matters are handled appropriately by the Justice Department—independently,” said Carney. He added that Obama recognized the need for the Justice Department “to investigate alleged criminal activity without undue influence.”
The Justice Department is currently investigating the disclosure of classified information having to do with a CIA operation in Yemen to stop a bomb plot. The AP wrote a story about it in May 2012.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Eric Holder defended the investigation at a news conference, calling the leak that resulted in the Department of Justice to seize the records was a “very serious leak,” one of the most serious one he’s seen since the 1970s. It “puts American people at risk. That’s not a hyperbole. It put the American people at risk.”
Holder said he recused himself from the leak investigation last year because he was interviewed by the FBI in connection with the investigation and had “frequent contact with the media.”
Several questions went unanswered, including if there were other reporters under surveillance.
The White House is also coming under fire as more details come out about the IRS wrongly targeting conservative groups, giving disproportionate scrutiny to their applications to become 501(c)(4) organizations. Initially the IRS said lower-level employees were to blame and no senior officials knew. However, according to a draft of an inspector general’s report obtained by the AP, senior IRS officials were aware of the bad behavior.
Holder said he ordered a criminal investigation into the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups.
A clearly frustrated Obama made clear at a press conference on Monday that he was angry with the IRS, calling the organization’s actions “outrageous.”
“There’s no place for it. They have to be held fully accountable, because the IRS as an independent agency requires absolute integrity,” said Obama, who said he became aware of the alleged actions on Friday, just like everyone else. “If you’ve got the IRS operating in anything less than a neutral and bipartisan way, then it is outrageous.”