WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) -- The Obama administration offered a forceful defense of its decision to secretly obtain more than two months of telephone records from Associated Press journalists on Tuesday, while professing the belief that the news media needs to be unfettered in its role as a government watchdog.
From the outset of his 2008 campaign, President Obama spoke of the need for a vibrant press, and administration officials have staked their claim to bringing more transparency to government than any administration before it.
But when it comes to leaks, the Obama administration has shown little tolerance for government officials divulging classified information to reporters - and the Justice Department has brought more prosecutions against current or former government officials for providing classified information to the news media than all previous administrations combined.
The administration's war on leaks is back in the spotlight after AP lawyers charged this week that the Justice Department conducted a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into its news-gathering process when federal prosecutors secretly obtained two months of phone records.
On Monday, the White House chief spokesman, Jay Carney, attempted to perform rhetorical jujitsu, saying the president respects the news media's need "to conduct investigative reporting" while recognizing "the need for the Justice Department to investigate alleged criminal activity without undue influence."
At the same time, Attorney General Eric Holder defended the decision by his deputy, James Cole, to sign off on the secret subpoena of the AP's phone records, which the AP believes was part of a probe into how information about a foiled terrorist plot was leaked to the news organization. AP wrote about the plot, aimed at a U.S.-bound airplane, in a May 7, 2012, story.
"This is among the top two or three serious leaks that I've ever seen," Holder said of the leak, adding: "It put the American people at risk."
Holder didn't elaborate on how the leak of information could have put Americans at risk.
But Cole, in a letter to AP on Tuesday, refuted the news agency's charge that Justice's act was a "massive and unprecedented intrusion."
In the letter to Gary Pruitt, the AP's president and CEO, Cole said the department is required to negotiate with a news organization before issuing subpoenas - unless it would pose a threat to the integrity of the investigation.
"We take this policy, and the interests that it is intended to protect, very seriously and followed it in this matter," Cole wrote.
Holder also revealed on Tuesday that he decided last year to recuse himself in the Justice Department's investigation involving the leak because he had access to the material in question and had "frequent contact with the media." The department's decision to secretly obtain the records was approved by Cole.
The attorney general told reporters that he was unaware of "all that went into the formulation of the subpoena" for the phone records. But he noted that "this was a very serious leak - a very, very serious leak."
Holder's and Cole's arguments raised eyebrows from news media and government transparency advocates.
Gregg Leslie, legal defense director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, argued that Holder is using language "that would make sense in a different scenario - one in which there is imminent danger."
But according to the AP, the office of U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen Jr. advised that Justice obtained the news agency's phone records at some unidentified time earlier this year.
"You don't have the same urgency and you don't have the same reason to defy your own rules (in this circumstance)," Leslie said. "The phone company holding these records is always going to have them. There is no urgent need to get them, there is no threat they are going to be destroyed. There is no chance that someone involved is going to cover their tracks."
Lucy Dalglish, dean of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism, described the Justice Department's action as "breathtaking.''
"The only reason you would do that is to intimidate the media and federal employees," Dalglish said. "An administration that values a free press would very narrowly target such an action. This is a tactic of intimidation. I have seen nothing like this.''
Carney said Tuesday that Obama was unaware of federal prosecutors' decision to secretly obtain the phone records 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," Carney said.
News of the AP probe comes on the heels of former CIA officer John Kiriakou beginning a 30-month prison sentence earlier this year for leaking classified information. Kiriakou became just the second CIA officer convicted of violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act and the first for passing along classified information to a reporter, even though the reporter did not publish the name of the operative.
Last year, before a panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, a Department of Justice lawyer argued that journalist James Risen should be forced to testify in the trial of former CIA agent Jeffrey Sterling, who is charged with leaking classified information to Risen about a botched plot against the Iranian government.
In total, since Obama took office, federal authorities have filed six leak-related criminal cases, including the court-martial of Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who pleaded guilty earlier this year to 10 counts related to leaking State Department cables and classified information to the website Wikileaks. That's more than all other administrations combined.
But Holder pushed back on Tuesday against suggestions that the Justice Department has been overly aggressive in going after whistle-blowers or that they stepped over a line in this case.
"We have investigated cases on the basis of the facts, not as a result of a policy to get the press or to do anything of that nature," Holder said. "The facts and the law have dictated our actions in that regard."