White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. (Photo credit SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Aamer Madhani and Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - A White House spokesman said Tuesday that President Obama was unaware of federal prosecutors' decision to secretly obtain phone records from 20 lines belonging to the Associated Press and its journalists and learned of the claims of the Justice Department's subpoena only from news reports.
"I cannot and he cannot comment on an ongoing investigation," said White House spokesman Jay Carney, who added that the president is a "firm believer in the need for the press to be unfettered in its ability to conduct investigative reporting and to facilitate a free flow of information."
Carney said Obama also "recognizes the need for the Justice Department to investigate alleged criminal activity without undue influence."
"There is a careful balance here that must be attained," he said.
The Justice Department suggested Monday that the decision to subpoena the records came only after looking into alternative means to obtain the information it sought.
The Obama administration has moved aggressively against government officials who have leaked classified information to the media.
The Justice Department has brought more prosecutions against current or former government officials for providing classified information to the media than every previous administration combined and has convicted six government officials for leaking information.
The AP's phone records obtained by Justice Department authorities date to April and May 2012. The AP says they may have been collected as part of an investigation into the leak of information the AP used in a May 7, 2012, story about a foiled terrorist plot on a U.S.-bound airplane, an attack that would have coincided with the one-year anniversary of the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Holder is likely to face reporters this afternoon and is scheduled to appear Wednesday before the House Judiciary Committee.
Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., promised "pointed questions'' about Justice's seizure of AP communications.
"Any abridgment of the First Amendment is very concerning,'' Goodlatte said, adding that the panel would also review reports that the IRS targeted conservative groups for scrutiny.
"Congress and the American people expect answers and accountability,'' he said.