Screen shot from C-SPAN’s broadcast of AG Holder’s news conference

A symptom of the news that the establishment media organization, the Associated Press, had their phone records targeted by the Justice Department as part of an apparent investigation into a leak has been that reporters have been more aggressive in their questioning of officials at press conferences.

During a news conference Attorney General Eric Holder held at about the same time as White House spokesperson Jay Carney was fielding questions from the press corps, multiple reporters asked him about the seizure of records and whether he understood why this would considered an affront to freedom of the press. Holder coolly and contemptibly maintained there was nothing to be appalled about with this investigation. (To view, go here.)

First, though the Justice Department has chosen not to inform the AP of what story they are investigating, it is believed that they are investigating a May 7, 2012, story on a CIA underwear bomb plot sting operation.

At the news conference, Holder indicated that he had “recused” himself in 2012 “to avoid the matter and to avoid the appearance of a potential conflict of interest and to make sure that the investigation was seen as independent.” The deputy attorney general, Jim Cole, was put in charge of signing off on the decision to seize the AP’s records. Holder effectively came himself plausible deniability and this made it possible for the investigation to as broad as those overseeing it deemed necessary.

He said later he was “one of the people who had knowledge of this matter” and because he has “frequent contact with the media” he chose not to be fully informed or involved. That sounds like he was well aware this would infuriate the press when they found out about the scope of the investigation and he did not want to be seen as someone in control of the investigation.

Multiple times he said he did not know all of the facts, but he was “confident that the people who are involved in the investigation, who I’ve known for a great many years and have worked with for a great many years followed all the appropriate Justice Department regulations and did things according to DoJ rules.” Imagine hearing this from any of the attorney generals who served under President George W. Bush—John Ashcroft, Alberto Gonzales or Michael B. Mukasey. It would not have been adequate reassurance then, and it is not adequately reassuring now.

NBC correspondent Michael Isikoff asked if he understood why people in the news business would find this troubling. Holder’s answer was the following:

I don’t know all that went into the formulation of the subpoena. This was a very serious leak, a very, very serious leak. I’ve been a prosecutor since 1976 and I have to say, if this is not the most serious, it is among the top two or three leaks that we have ever seen. It put the American people at risk. And that is not hyperbole. It put the American people at risk and trying to determine who was responsible for that I think required very aggressive action…

This contradicts CIA director John Brennan, who was an Obama administration counterterrorism adviser at the time, and spoke with media on the sting operation. He said during a Senate hearing, “There was never a threat to the American public as we had said so publicly, because we had inside control of the plot, and the device was never a threat to the American public.” So, it does not seem reasonable that a leak about an operation that was fully controlled would warrant the descriptor of one of the most serious leaks he has seen since he began working as a prosecutor nearly four decades ago.

But, let’s presume there was some threat. In the original story published by the AP, it included this paragraph:

…The AP learned about the thwarted plot last week but agreed to White House and CIA requests not to publish it immediately because the sensitive intelligence operation was still under way. Once officials said those concerns were allayed, the AP decided to disclose the plot Monday despite requests from the Obama administration to wait for an official announcement Tuesday…

Cole sent a letter to AP CEO Gary Pruitt today, where he responded to an initial letter sent by AP to the Justice Department. That letter did not inform the AP of what story the Justice Department is investigating, but Pruitt said in a response letter that they have an idea of what is under investigation.

He added, “We held that story until the government assured us that the national security concerns had passed. Indeed, the White House was preparing to publicly announce that the bomb plot had been foiled,” and, “The White House had said there was no credible threat to the American people in May of 2012. The AP story suggested otherwise, and we felt that was important information and the public deserved to know it.”

Pruitt also stated, with regards to the fact that the Justice Department refuses to say what story is under investigation, “They say this secrecy is important for national security. It is always difficult to respond to that, particularly since they still haven’t told us specifically what they are investigating.”

Holder was asked if it was policy for the administration to target the press. His answer was that it was “certainly not the policy of the administration.” He said, “You will remember in 2009, when I was going through my confirmation hearings, I testified in favor of a reporter’s shield law. We actually as an administration took a position in favor of such a law; didn’t get the necessary support on the Hill.” It is something that the administration still thinks would be appropriate.

That is not how MSNBC’s Chuck Todd understands the administration’s record.

Todd: You keep talking about then Sen .Obama supported a certain piece of legislation that, in fact, as president he killed that piece of legislation in October of 2009 — and made it so that the protections he supported, having judicial review … there was an opportunity to have this bill passed…and he said the White House had problems with it and he killed it.

Carney: First of all, you’re talking about separate pieces of legislation and a legislative history that bears a little more looking into. The president’s position on this is what it was as a senator. But the fact is I cannot then appropriately apply his support for that measure…

Todd: If he supported that piece of legislation, we wouldn’t be having this conversation today because he supported a judicial review when it came to protectin some of these sources –

Carney: And what happened to it in 2007?

Todd: I’m asking you what happen in 2009 when he was president of the United States.

Carney: The legislative history is a little bit more complicated here than what you represent…

Todd: But the Democrats were in charge. You had Chuck Schumer. I mean, this is 2009. Who cares what he said in 2007? We know what he said on the campaign trail in 2008 in front of the Associated Press when it came to this issue. He had a chance to support this and make this happen. Why did he change his position?

Carney: The president’s position on this has not changed.

Todd: Yes, it has.

Carney: No, it hasn’t Chuck.

Todd: The administration said essentially he chained his position because of certain things in national security. Can you explain why?

Carney: Broadly speaking, the president does support the ability of journalists in an unfettered way to pursue investigative journalism. He believes that we have to find a balance between that goal…

Carney went on to say the government has to be concerned about leaks of secrets that could damage national security. Todd appropriately responded that a “third party should have to make that decision” and, as a candidate, President Obama supported “the point of the press is sometimes to be the watchdog of the watchdog and the Judiciary Branch is the appropriate place to make that determination.

And then, remarkably, Todd cogently pointed out, “Look, you guys will claim classified—and it’s not just you as an administration—any administration claims everything is somehow a national security leak.” He suggested a third party should decide whether a leak was or is going to endanger lives and asked if the president supported that kind of protection for media. Carney declined to address this question.

The New York Times reported in October 2009, “The Obama administration has told lawmakers that it opposes legislation that could protect reporters from being imprisoned if they refuse to disclose confidential sources who leak material about national security, according to several people involved with the negotiations.”

“The administration this week sent to Congress sweeping revisions to a ‘media shield’ bill that would significantly weaken its protections against forcing reporters to testify,” the Times also reported. So, both Carney and Holder are being disingenuous.

To top it off, a reporter asked him what he thought about the Obama administration’s civil liberties record, whether the administration was disappointed and why more had not been done. Holder shiftily answered, “I’m proud of what we’ve done. He cited “the policies we put in place with regard to the war on terror,” the discontinuation of certain “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and the aggressive enforcement of civil rights laws. And, pressed further, he added, “This administration has put a real value on the rule of law and our values as Americans.”

It is unclear what value the Justice Department is promoting when it engages in a wide fishing expedition for records from twenty different phone lines in AP offices that were used by over 100 journalists working for the AP. It is unclear what value is being upheld when two months of time is targeted and it appears that the Justice Department may not only be able to secretly use the material obtained to investigate the leak on the sting operation but also possibly look into the sources for stories by the AP on the US drone program and investigate those sources.

For previous coverage of this story, such as the nature of the Justice Department’s collection of records and a description of a prior case in 2004 where Washington Post and New York Times reporters were targeted by the FBI, go here.