Recent scandal over the Justice Department’s secretive and controversial seizure of Associated Press records is yet another blow for Attorney General Eric Holder, who is facing mounting criticism over a number of brewing controversies relating to Benghazi and IRS audits allegedly targeting conservative political organizations. The recent AP scandal may prove to be a fatal blow for the attorney general's tenure. But the attorney general has been careful to distance himself from the controversial decision, leaving some indication he will be able to weather the storm.
The problem remains, with growing anger from journalists and politicians alike over an unprecedented government seizure of press records, many are eager to find a villain in the case. If Holder can provide sufficient indication to support claims that he recused himself from controversial decision, such evidence may be the key to his survival.
The Justice Department's recent seizure of the AP's records appears to have been connected to a federal inquiry into information procured in a May 7, 2012 AP story about CIA efforts in Yemen that thwarted an Al-Qaeda plot to bomb a U.S.-bound airplane. The Obama administration consistently requested the AP delay reports on the issue due to “national security interests.”
The Associated Press, a multinational nonprofit news agency based in New York City, claims it relies on confidential sources to support its news gathering operations, and has said the DOJ's broad and unannounced seizure of confidential records violated its first amendment freedoms and journalistic integrity. The news agency’s general counsel Laura Malone reports she received a letter from a U.S. attorney on Friday after the probe had taken place, and AP spokespeople have been quick to claim there is “no possible justification” for the federal action.
Uproar has been widespread throughout news organizations fearing the same. The Newspaper Association of America issued a statement in reaction, saying, "These actions shock the American conscience and violate the critical freedom of the press protected by the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.”
A spokesperson for for Dow Jones said the company was concerned about the “broader implications” of this action for media freedom. House Speaker John Boehner has been quick to jump in with pointed criticisms against the administration, claiming, “The First Amendment is first for a reason. If the Obama Administration is going after reporters’ phone records, they better have a damned good explanation …”
But the Justice Department insists that proper protocol was followed in the case. Federal regulations require subpoenas for journalists’ phone records to be undertaken as a last resort, subject to the attorney general’s personal approval. The New York Times insists that under “normal” circumstances, an organization will receive a federal notice calling for records, which gives an organization an opportunity to challenge such subpoenas in court.
As it seems clear that no such warning or period of negotiations took place in this extraordinary case, President Obama and Attorney General Holder have unsurprisingly made attempts to quickly distance themselves from the controversy.
White house spokesperson Jay Carney insisted on Tuesday that the administration was “not involved” in the case. And, in a quickly defensive announcement, Eric Holder has come forward explaining that he had recused himself from this investigation early on due to potential conflict of interest in the case, claiming in a Tuesday press conference, “I don't know all that went into the formulation of the subpoena."
Such distance appears to be critical for the Attorney General’s survival in such a case. Jill Lawrence makes the obvious but harrowing point in the Atlantic this week that the burden of the slew of recent controversies facing the Justice Department will likely fall on Holder’s shoulders as a symbol of accountability, regardless of his actual degree of involvement in this decision or the power of the “national security” argument the Justice Department will put forward in the case. With former officials such as Hillary Clinton, David Petraeus, and Leon Panetta long-gone since a number of these controversies took place, the administration and public will likely want to hold someone accountable, and Holder looks to be the front man available to shoulder blame.
The attorney general is safest if he can maintain his distance from this unsavory matter in Wednesday’s upcoming testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on the matter. If his “recusal” claim proves tenuous, the Attorney General should go. But he need not be reduced to an emblematic symbol of accountability in a witch-hunt style investigation quick to point blame. More information about the formulation of the subpoena and ensuing investigation is still needed to adequately judge the case, and the recent recusal claim may turn out to be essential to the Attorney General's survival.