Attorney General Eric Holder recused himself from the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) decision to secretly seize two months of phone records of Associated Press journalists.
Holder said he recused himself early on in the DOJ's investigation of what he described as some of the most serious leaks from government officials that jeopardized national security. Deputy Attorney General James Cole signed off on the subpoena authorizing the seizure of the AP's phone records last year.
"I don't know all that went into the formulation of the subpoena," Holder said at a press conference on Tuesday.
The AP on Monday called the seizure a "massive intrusion" that struck at the heart of a free press, and lawmakers in both parties have criticized the Justice Department's actions.
The White House has avoided direct comment, with White House press secretary Jay Carney — under fierce questioning Tuesday — insisting President Obama strongly supports a free press but saying he would not comment on an ongoing criminal probe.
Holder did say on Tuesday that the leak that sparked the subpoena was "a very serious leak."
"This was a very serious leak. A very, very serious leak," Holder said. "It put the American people at risk, and that is not hyperbole. It put the American people at risk."
Holder said he recused himself to prevent any sort of appearance of conflict of interest.
"I testified, I guess back in June 2012, that I'd been interviewed by the FBI in connection with this matter, and to avoid the potential appearance of a conflict of interest and to make sure the investigation would seem as independent, I recused myself from this matter," Holder said.
Pressed for more details, Holder said: "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 and to avoid even the possibility of an appearance of a conflict, I made the determination to recuse myself."
Holder said he believed that the subpoena was performed in conformity with Department of Justice regulations.
Holder appointed two U.S. attorneys last year to investigate a series of national security leaks that provoked bipartisan criticism from Congress, with members in both parties saying they are the worst series of leaks in memory.
Several Senate Republicans pressed for the appointment of an outside special counsel to conduct the investigation, criticizing Holder's decision to appoint the U.S. attorneys. The Republicans accused the administration of using the leaks to highlight President Obama's national security credentials ahead of his reelection effort.
The leaks investigation is believed to cover several unauthorized disclosures of information, including a New York Times report that the U.S. had launched a cyberattack against Iran, reports of an administration “kill list” of terrorist targets, expanded drone operations, and the disclosure of a Yemini double agent who infiltrated al Qaeda.
Obama said at the time that it was outrageous to say the leaks were done for a political purpose.
Holder has defended his department’s ability to be independent as it investigates the leaks in the face of Republican calls for a special counsel, saying that the two U.S. attorneys he appointed will “follow leads wherever they are, whether in the executive branch or other component of government."
The AP said it had been informed of the seizure on Friday. AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt called the action “a serious interference with the AP’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news.”
In a letter to Pruitt on Tuesday, Cole defended his department's decision. He said Justice, in accordance with department policy, had conducted more than 550 interviews and reviewed tens of thousands of documents before it subpoenaed the phone records of the AP employees.
Cole said the DOJ made the decision to go after the phone records only after determining that they were vital to the department’s investigation.
“As you know, for each of the phone numbers referenced in our May l0, 2013, letter, there was a basis to believe the numbers were associated with AP personnel involved in the reporting of classified information," he wrote.
Cole said the information requested in the subpoenas was limited to a “portion” of the two-month period from April to May 2012 and “did not seek the content of any calls.”
“The records have not been and will not be provided for use in any other investigations,” said Cole.
Cole's bid to become deputy attorney general was bumpy, as most Senate Republicans opposed his nomination. Last year, Obama exerted executive privilege over "Fast and Furious" documents. In a letter informing the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee of the president's decision, Cole wrote, "We regret that we have arrived at this point, after the many steps we have taken to address the committee's concerns."
This story was posted at 1:46 p.m. and last updated at 3:23 p.m.