Justice Department Under Fire For IRS Audits, AP Phone Logs

Attorney General Eric Holder met reporters on Tuesday for the first time since reports surfaced of his Justice Department secretly seizing telephone logs from the homes and offices of Associated Press journalists. Holder said he himself had not been involved in that subpoena, but that it had been part of an investigation into a national security breach he called a threat to American lives. Audie Cornish talks to Carrie Johnson about the news conference and about her own interview with the attorney general.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

Attorney General Eric Holder today waded into not one, but two controversies that are roiling the nation's capital. He announced a criminal investigation into the IRS and its targeting of conservative groups for extra scrutiny before granting tax exemptions.

He also said that his Justice Department had been investigating a very grave national security breach last year when it issued a subpoena for telephone logs from the Associated Press. The subpoena covered two months worth of office and home phones used by many of its reporters and editors, a sweep the president of the AP has condemned as unjustified and unprecedented.

NPR's Carrie Johnson covers the Department of Justice and interviewed the attorney general after today's news conference. She joins me now in the studio. And, Carrie, first, what did Holder say he would do about the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Holder said he's directed his employees to look at a variety of statutes within the IRS code, as well as the U.S. criminal code, to see if any laws may have been violated by this inappropriate targeting. Holder said this was outrageous, but we have yet to see if there was any criminal behavior. The Justice Department is going to be looking at that now.

CORNISH: And tonight, President Obama actually issued a statement saying he's directed the Treasury secretary to hold those responsible to account. But Carrie, moving on to the issue of the seizure of phone logs from the Associated Press, what exactly has the Justice Department done in this case, and why?

JOHNSON: Well, Audie, this all dates back to a May 2012 story by the Associated Press. That story said the CIA had thwarted a bomb plot to put a bomb on an airplane headed for the U.S. and detonate that bomb with some very sophisticated new kind of device. That story became the subject of a big federal criminal leak investigation, and here's what the attorney general said today about that subpoena for the AP records.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: 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 hyperbole.

CORNISH: You know, one wrinkle here, Carrie. Holder said this during his news conference today about the AP investigation.

HOLDER: 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.

CORNISH: Carrie, to get to the nugget of what he said there, the attorney general had to recuse himself from the case. Why?

JOHNSON: Audie, in a bit of a surprise today, the attorney general reminded folks that he had been interviewed by the FBI as part of this criminal leak investigation. And to maintain the appearance of propriety, he had decided to step aside. He had - he mentioned as well that other people within the Justice Department had decided to step aside.

We now know that more than 500 people in and outside the government have been interviewed as part of this case, in addition, of course, to the AP reporters' phone records being monitored, 20 phone lines in several cities in the U.S., including some reporters' home, cell and office phone lines.

CORNISH: So then who at DOJ is actually running this probe?

JOHNSON: Well, the deputy attorney general, James Cole, the number two at the Justice Department, has been deputized as the acting attorney general for this matter. Jim Cole is the one who has written to the AP to try to explain the reasons for this targeting of the AP phone records, but as a lawyer mentioned to me today, given the brush-back that's happened on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, lucky Jim. Not many people want to be Jim Cole today.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thank you.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

CORNISH: We should also note that NPR has joined with a number of other news organizations in sending a letter of protest to the attorney general under the aegis of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The full text of that letter can be read on our website at npr.org.

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