WHITE HOUSE — President Barack Obama’s administration is facing tough questions on three separate matters, most recently the government seizure of telephone records from news reporters.
Reporters peppered White House Press Secretary Jay Carney with questions Tuesday about each of the three issues.
The Associated Press news agency said Monday the U.S. Department of Justice seized two months of telephone records for many of its reporters and editors.
U.S. officials say the Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation into who may have provided information for a 2012 AP story about a CIA operation in Yemen that stopped an al-Qaida bomb plot.
Carney said Tuesday the president supports the constitutional right of freedom of the press. He said it would be inappropriate for the president, though, to involve himself in a criminal investigation.
“The president is committed to the press’s ability to pursue information, to defending the First Amendment. He is also, as a citizen and as commander-in-chief, committed to the proposition that we cannot allow classified information that can do harm to our national security interests or to endanger individuals to be leaked. And that is a balance that has to be struck,” said Carney.
Attorney General Eric Holder said he played no direct role in the Justice Department’s review of the phone records, but called it part of an investigation into what he called a grave national security leak. Holder removed himself from the investigation, and assigned a deputy attorney general to handle the case.
Holder has also ordered an investigation into allegations the U.S. tax collecting agency, the Internal Revenue Service, targeted politically conservative non-profit groups for scrutiny during Obama’s first term.
Carney said the president finds the alleged IRS behavior “outrageous,” but that the administration cannot act on it until another probe, by an independent government inspector, has concluded.
“But this is a matter, when it comes to the IRS, that is under review by the independent Inspector General. We have not seen that report. It is our understanding that its release is fairly imminent, and once we have that report, we will be able to assess next steps,” said Carney.
Republican lawmakers, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, are calling for congressional hearings into both the AP phone records and the IRS.
“So this morning I am calling on the president to make available, completely and without restriction, everyone, everyone who can answer the questions we have as to what has been going on at the IRS, who knew about it and how high it went,” said McConnell.
And Republican-led committees in the House of Representatives are continuing their probe into the events surrounding the killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other diplomats at a U.S. facility in Benghazi, Libya last September.
While Republicans have sharply criticized the administration’s handling of the situation, Carney called their inquiries a “political sideshow.” He charged that Speaker of the House John Boehner is “obsessed” with exploiting the incident for political gain.