U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder calls on a reporter during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, May 14, 2013.
WASHINGTON — U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said on Tuesday that he had recused himself from the Justice Department's controversial decision to secretly seize telephone records of the Associated Press.
Instead, the decision to seek phone records of one of the world's largest news-gathering organizations was made by the deputy attorney general, Holder said. Jim Cole currently holds that position.
The seizure, denounced by critics as a gross intrusion into freedom of the press, has created an uproar in Washington and led to questions over how the Obama administration is balancing the need for national security with privacy rights.
Holder said he recused himself from the matter to avoid a potential conflict of interest because he was interviewed by the FBI in connection with the investigation into the unauthorized disclosure of classified information.
The seizure of AP telephone records appears connected to a criminal probe into information contained in a May 7, 2012, AP story about a CIA operation in Yemen that stopped an al Qaeda plot to detonate a bomb on an airplane headed for the United States.
Holder, speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, said the unauthorized information put the American people at risk and required "very aggressive action."
He said he did not have specific knowledge about the formulation of the subpoena for AP telephone records, but he said he does not believe there was any wrongdoing.
"I'm confident that the people who are involved in this investigation ... followed all of the appropriate Justice Department regulations and did things according to DOJ rules," Holder said, speaking at an unrelated press conference on Medicare fraud.
The AP has said it was informed last Friday that the Justice Department had gathered records for more than 20 phone lines assigned to the news agency and its reporters.
The records covered April and May of last year, and were obtained earlier this year, the AP said.
It described the seizures as a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into news-gathering operations.
"There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters," AP Chief Executive Gary Pruitt said in a letter sent to Holder on Monday.
An AP story on the records seizure said the government would not say why it sought them. But it noted that U.S. officials have previously said the U.S. Attorney's Office in the District of Columbia was conducting the criminal investigation into the May 2012 AP story.
Five reporters and an editor involved in that story were among those whose phone records were obtained by the government, the AP said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said during a press briefing on Tuesday that President Barack Obama sought to balance support for a free press with the need to investigate leaks of classified information.
"The president believes that the press as a rule needs to have an unfettered ability to pursue investigative journalism," Carney told a news briefing.
"He is also committed, as president and as a citizen, to the proposition that we cannot allow classified information, that can do harm to our national security interests or do harm to individuals, to be leaked," Carney said.
Carney reiterated that the White House was not involved in the decision to seize the AP records.
Holder also expressed his commitment to media freedom, saying that he had testified in favor of a reporter shield law.