Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday that he recused himself from the Justice Department's probe into national security leaks "early on in the investigation."
Holder's announcement came after the Associated Press revealed Monday that in the process of investigating the leaks, the Justice Department had secretly obtained telephone records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP journalists and offices, including cell and home phone lines.
The attorney general also said that the DOJ has launched an investigation into reports that the IRS singled out conservative groups—another scandal that has plagued the Obama administration in recent days.
Holder indicated that he ended his involvement in the investigation in order "to avoid the appearance of a potential conflict of interest," citing his June 2012 interview with the FBI in connection to the leaks. The Deputy Attorney General has led the investigation since Holder's recusal. Holder said that he's confident that the AP records were obtained "within regulations."
"This was a very serious leak—a very very serious leak," Holder said Tuesday. "I've been a prosecutor since 1976 and I have to say that this is among, if not the, most serious," he said. "It put the American people at risk, and that is not hyperbole."
"Trying to determine who is responsible for that I think required very aggressive action," he added.
AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt slammed the "massive intrusion" into its newsgathering efforts and a "serious interference" with its constitutional rights in a letter Monday.
“There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters. 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.”
Holder appointed two federal prosecutors last June to spearhead the investigation into suspected leaks of classified information after receiving sharp criticism from Republicans. The leaked information, revealed by press outlets including the Associated Press and New York Times, included reports of American cyber warfare against Iran and of a double agent who infiltrated a militant group in Yemen.
The nation's first African-American attorney general has been mired in controversy for much of his tenure as head of the Justice Department.
On the right, Republicans have blasted his handling of the Fast and Furious, the "gun walking" program, started under the Bush administration, that put American firearms in the hands of suspected smugglers in order to track them to Mexican drug cartels.
Despite not being directly involved with the program, House Republicans voted last summer to hold Holder in contempt of Congress when he refused to turn over information related to discussions of the program. Many Democrats walked out in protest of that vote, calling it a partisan witch-hunt.
But Holder has not been spared from criticism on his left flank either, especially when attempts to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed in federal court fell apart in 2011.
He informed the president that Mohammed would be returned to Guantánamo Bay for trial. At the time, the Washington Post said the decision effectively ended "the president's promise to close the military detention center." When questioned about the issue Tuesday, Holder confirmed his and the president's dedication to closing the facility down.
Holder is expected to be grilled by House Republicans Wednesday when he testifies before a House Judiciary Committee hearing.