Transcript: Attorney General Eric Holder’s remarks on the Associated Press phone records – May 14, 2013 press briefing

Partial transcript of Attorney General Eric Holder’s remarks on the Justice Department’s subpoena of phone records of Associated Press reporters at a press conference on May 14, 2013:

Question:
…A few questions on the subpoena of AP phone records. Did you sign off on this subpoena for two months of AP phone records. If you did not because you were recused in that case, when did you recuse yourself and whom did you delegate authority to make that decision? And thirdly, the AP yesterday wrote you a letter, calling this a serious infringement on news-gathering operations, a violation of the department’s own guidelines, and asking you to return those records and destroy all copies. Will you consider doing so?

Attorney General Eric Holder:
If I don’t remember all the questions, I’m sure you’ll come back to me with those. I testified, I guess, back in June 2012 that I’ve been interviewed by the FBI in connection with this matter. And to avoid a potential – the appearance of a potential conflict of interest and to make sure that the investigation was seen as independent, I recused myself from this matter. We’ll get to you exactly when that happened. It was early on in the investigation. This matter has therefore – has thereafter been conducted by the U.S. Attorney here in Washington, D.C. under the supervision of the Deputy Attorney General. The Deputy Attorney General would have been the one who ultimately had to authorize the subpoena that went to the AP.

Now, I’m not familiar with all that went into the formulation of the subpoena. I was recused from that matter. But I’m confident that the people who are involved in this investigation who I know for a great many years and I’ve worked with for a great many years followed all of the appropriate Justice Department regulations and did things according to DOJ rules.

Question:
Do you understand why people in the news-gathering business such as us would find this troubling?

Attorney General Eric Holder:
Well, you know, as I said, I don’t know all that went into the formulation of the subpoena. This was a very serious – a very serious leak – 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, it is within the top two or three most serious leaks that I’ve ever seen. It put the American people at risk, and that is not a hyperbole. It put the American people at risk. And trying to determine who is responsible for that, I think, required very aggressive action, and as I said, I’m sure that the subpoena as formulated based on the people that I know – I don’t know about the facts – but based on the people I know, I think that that subpoena was done in conformance with DOJ regs.

Question:
The AP says that it found out about this after the fact – after the records were already taken. Why was no attempt made to seek the AP’s voluntary cooperation?

Attorney General Eric Holder:
Again, you’re getting into matters that are beyond my knowledge. I was recused in the matters. I don’t know.

Question:
Are you comfortable with that approach? Because ordinarily, wouldn’t protocol require that you would try to approach for voluntary cooperation?

Attorney General Eric Holder:
Again, I don’t know what the circumstances were here. And so, you know, how things are done in particular investigations have to be dictated by the facts. And I, frankly, don’t have knowledge of those facts.

Question:
I think the real question here – the underlying question is the policy of the administration when it comes to the ability of the media to cover the news. And I think the question for you is given the fact that this news organization was not given an opportunity to try to quash this in court as has been precedent, it leaves us in the position of wondering whether the administration has somehow decided policy-wise that it’s going to go after us.

Attorney General Eric Holder:
Well, that is certainly not – well, I can talk about policy. That is certainly not the policy of this administration. If you will remember in 2009, when I was – went to my confirmation hearing, I testified in favor of a reporter shield law. We actually, as an administration, took a position in favor of such a law. Didn’t get the necessary support up on the Hill. It’s something this administration still thinks would be appropriate.

We’ve investigated cases on the basis of the facts – not as a result of a policy to “get the press” or to do anything of that nature. The facts and the law have dictated our actions in that regard.

Question:
You said that it’s not hyperbole that this put American lives at risk. If the underlying investigation was basically being run with the knowledge and with the hand of the U.S. government, why was there any risk to Americans when that information came out?

Attorney General Eric Holder:
I can’t answer that question.

Question:
[Inaudible]

Attorney General Eric Holder:
It was towards the beginning of the investigation. Perhaps we can get you the exact date. I don’t know when that was. But as I said, it was because I was one of the people who had knowledge of this matter. I have frequent contact with the media and try to make sure that this investigation was seen as one that was independent to avoid even the possibility of an appearance of a conflict, I made the determination to recuse myself.

Question:
The regulation requires these subpoenas to be drawn as narrowly as possible. Do you believe that in this case where there was a two-month period of 20 different phone lines – does that, in your view, a narrowly drawn…?

Attorney General Eric Holder:
One thing I would refer you to the Deputy Attorney General has written a letter in response to the AP letter. I assume – I don’t know if it’s been made available yet. But that has a number of factual assertions in it that contradicts some of the assertions that were made by the letter that came from the AP. So I would refer you to that with regard to a response to that question.

Question:
The phone records in the AP case. The notification speaks to phone records because the Justice Department’s internal regulation speaks to phone records. Those regulations don’t speak to email records. Based on your briefings either at the time or now that it’s all come out, can you say whether the journalist’s email records, including content of email records that may have been older than 6 months were accessed as part of this investigation?

Attorney General Eric Holder:
Again, you’d have to refer to the letter that the Deputy Attorney General prepared. It actually is, from what I understand, I’ve only seen it in draft form, but it’s pretty specific about – to times and dates in which things were acquired and what actually was acquired. But it’s all in the letter that the Deputy Attorney General sent back to the AP.

Question:
Was AP the only news organization that got their records subpoenaed?

Attorney General Eric Holder:
Again, that will be for the Deputy Attorney General and U.S. Attorney to respond to.

Question:
Can you say whether as a general matter it’s possible to conduct a thorough investigation of leaks of classified information that appear in the media without taking some of these investigative steps like pulling phone records or subpoenaing people or things along those lines?

Attorney General Eric Holder:
Well, the Department of Justice regulation says that you have to exhaust all of the other possibilities before you engage in – interacting with the media. And so it is possible to do investigations in that way. But each investigation is different and as I’ve said, I’m confident, knowing the people here but not knowing the facts, that the decision to do what they did here is consistent with their having exhausted all the other possibilities.

Question:
How many people within the department had to be recused? Did it also include the FBI director, since he was also interviewed? Also Lisa Monaco? Can you give us the totality?

Attorney General Eric Holder:
I think I’m probably the only – well, I don’t know. I think I’m probably the only person who’s recused and I did so, as I said, out of an abundance of caution because I would have been the person leading the investigation. And it just seemed to me that having been interviewed, having knowledge of the matter, and then interacting with the press that it just seemed to me it’d probably be better for me to step out.

Question:
Why was the AP case different than other leak investigations that you all have been involved with? …What made this different in your estimation and why did it require such an extensive sweep of materials?

Attorney General Eric Holder:
Sweep – I’m not sure about. Again, I don’t know the facts there. But I do know enough about what was compromised as a result of that leak, and on the basis of that knowledge, that gives me the ability to characterize it as serious a matter as I said it was.

 

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