Attorney General Eric Holder fielded questions from reporters this afternoon, and shed some additional light on two of the controversies that have captured the political world's attention.
So, what'd we learn? On the IRS matter, Holder criticized the unfair treatment faced by conservative groups, and said he's asked the FBI to review the agency's actions to see if any laws were broken. This seems to have made Republican pundits very excited, but they may want to keep their expectations in check -- no one, including Holder, is defending the IRS, but the likelihood that the agency's actions were literally criminal is remote.
Of greater interest, however, were Holder's remarks about the subpoenas of phone logs of many Associated Press journalists. Has had been previously reported, the A.G. confirmed that this was part of a national security leak from last year, and that Holder himself had been interviewed by the FBI as part of the investigation. With that in mind, Holder recused himself and assigned the case to Deputy Attorney General James Cole.
"I am confident that the people who are involved in this investigation, who I know for a great many years and who I've worked with for a great many years, followed all of the appropriate Justice Department regulations and did things according to DOJ rules," Holder said.He added that it "certainly not the policy of this administration" to target reporters. What has been done in the leaks investigation was, he said, "not as a result of a policy to get the press."Referring to the leaks of national security information, Holder said, "This was a very, very serious leak. I've been a prosecutor since 1976 -- and I have to say that this is among, if not the most serious, in the top two or three most serious leaks that I've ever seen. It put the American people at risk – and that is not hyperbole."Trying to find out who leaked the information "required very aggressive action," Holder said.
But that's not all.
Holder also referenced a letter, which was later released, from Cole to the AP, noting that the subpoenas were pursued "only after all other reasonable alternative investigative steps" had been taken. In other words, according to the Justice Department, the subpoenas were legal and within agency guidelines. So far, there's no evidence the DOJ's efforts were illegal (or extra-legal), though what's legal and what's appropriate are not always the same thing.
There's also a political element worth considering, which Rachel will be talking about in more detail on tonight's show: a reporter seemed to suggest the administration's policy has shifted towards targeting news organizations and Holder noted that he and the president support a "shield" law to protect reporters from intrusion. That proposal would be law now were it not for opposition from congressional Republicans, many of whom are now complaining about the circumstances they helped create.
There is a certain degree of irony hanging over this story. Ryan Lizza offered this recap: "GOP calls on Holder to investigate leaks. Holder appoints US Attorney. US Att. subpoenas AP records. GOP calls on Holder to resign."
I'd just add that the U.S. attorney subpoenaed AP records thanks to an existing vulnerability the administration doesn't support, but can't fix thanks to Republican opposition.