WASHINGTON (AP) — The leaders of a House panel told Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday that they had serious concerns about the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at The Associated Press.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he worries about any infringement on freedom of the press in light of the Justice Department's actions in the investigation of national security leaks.
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., said he was "troubled by the notion that our government would pursue a broad array of phone records over a period of time."
Holder is certain to face aggressive questioning by the Republican-led committee on topics ranging from the Justice Department's gathering of AP phone records to the government's handling of intelligence before the Boston Marathon bombings.
Goodlatte said he was concerned about the targeting of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service, which is now the focus of an investigation by Holder's Justice Department.
Responding to news of the gathering of AP records, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., planned to revive a 2009 media shield bill that protects journalists and their employers from having to reveal information, including the identity of sources who had been promised confidentiality.
The law does contain some exceptions in instances of national security.
"This kind of law would balance national security needs against the public's right to the free flow of information," Schumer said in a statement. "At minimum, our bill would have ensured a fairer, more deliberate process in this case."
The White House threw its support behind the legislation, said a White House official, who was not authorized to speak on the record about the topic and demanded anonymity. Ed Pagano, President Barack Obama's liaison to the Senate, placed a call Wednesday morning to Schumer's office to ask him to revive the bill, a move the senator had planned to make.
Obama's support for the bill signaled an effort by the White House to show action in the face of heated criticism from lawmakers from both parties and news organizations about his commitment to protecting civil liberties and freedom of the press.
White House officials have said they are unable to comment publicly on the incident at the heart of the controversy because the Justice Department's leak probe essentially amounts to a criminal investigation of administration officials.
Holder has said the collection of AP phone records stems from an investigation into national security leaks. Republicans and some Democrats had pressed for an investigation last year, with many in Congress contending that the leaks were designed to enhance President Barack Obama's reputation in combatting terrorism as he sought re-election.
Holder on Tuesday defended the move to collect AP phone records in an effort to hunt down the sources of information for a May 7, 2012, AP story that disclosed details of a CIA operation in Yemen to stop an airliner bombing plot around the anniversary of the killing of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. The attorney general called the story the result of "a very serious leak, a very grave leak."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence committee, said Wednesday that the leak was "within the most serious leaks because it definitely endangered some lives."
Feinstein said it was her understanding that the information gathering did not focus on the "content of phone calls," but rather "to see who reporters have spoken to, that somebody did provide this information with respect to this bomb."
At a news conference Tuesday, Holder defended the subpoenas to the AP and disclosed that the department was investigating the IRS for giving tea party groups extra scrutiny when they applied for tax exempt status.
Documents obtained by the AP suggest the targeting of conservative groups could be more widespread than the IRS has acknowledged. The agency has said it was limited to low-level workers in a Cincinnati office.
"Any abridgement of the First Amendment is very concerning, especially reports that the IRS targeted conservative groups for unwarranted scrutiny during an election year," Goodlatte said.
Regarding the subpoenaing of AP phone records, Goodlatte said: "Members of the committee will ask pointed questions about the Justice Department's decision to obtain two months' worth of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press."
"Congress and the American people expect answers and accountability," he added.
Holder defended the move to collect AP phone records in an effort to hunt down the sources of information for a May 7, 2012, AP story that disclosed details of a CIA operation in Yemen to stop an airliner bombing plot around the anniversary of the killing of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. The attorney general called the story the result of "a very serious leak, a very grave leak."
On the Boston bombings, Goodlatte said law enforcement and intelligence agencies failed to "connect the dots and share critical information" about the suspects, Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his younger brother, Dzhokhar.
"The Obama administration and Congress need to determine whether there are improvements that can be made going forward to facilitate interagency information-sharing so that we can better detect and deter future homegrown terrorist attacks," Goodlatte said. "We must ensure our criminal laws and processes are up to the task of handling terrorism cases."
At Tuesday's news conference, Holder said the U.S. has gotten good cooperation from the Russians on the Boston bombings investigation. U.S. law enforcement officials are trying to determine whether Tamerlan Tsarnaev was indoctrinated or trained by militants during his visit to Dagestan, a Caspian Sea province of Russia that has become the center of a simmering Islamic insurgency.
Associated Press writers Josh Lederman, Erica Werner and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.