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Lawmakers Outraged by Leaks Struggle With DOJ’s AP Seizure

Though plenty of noise is being made over the Department of Justice’s subpoenas of reporters’ phone records, there is a steady stream of lawmakers who remain neutral about what news organizations say was a serious threat to freedom of the press.

On Wednesday, as the White House reached out to Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., to reintroduce a reporter shield bill and the congressional press galleries sent a letter to the deputy U.S. attorney general, Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein was unruffled by the rush to protect the Fourth Estate.

The California Democrat told CQ Roll Call on Wednesday that she is not yet alarmed by the Department of Justice’s acquisition of phone records to and from Associated Press reporters. Feinstein is one of the few lawmakers who was vocal last summer about more aggressively prosecuting national security leaks that appeared in The New York Times on issues such as an administration “kill list” and drones.

“I’m not one of them that has said the Department of Justice has exceeded their boundaries. I think it’s important that we find out exactly what was done. As I understand it, it was a very short period of time and the only thing collected was what we call metadata — which is not content of a call, it’s numbers,” Feinstein said in a brief interview. “I would assume because prosecutions are so difficult to make in this era that being able to trace where the leak came from to the person that receives the leak is important.”

When asked about some of her colleagues who had called for more intense probes in 2012, Feinstein lamented the politicization of national security matters and those members who seem to have suddenly changed their position on the issue out of what appears on the surface to be political expediency.

“I think to some extent what we’re into is an unusual effort to really find fault, and I very much regret it. But it’s going to impact the credibility of the people who are doing this, long term, I think,” Feinstein said.

Republicans John McCain of Arizona and John Cornyn of Texas were among the most vocal senators last summer, when they believed administration officials were leaking classified information to help President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.

“Over the past few months, there’s been a disturbing stream of articles in the media. In common among them is that they cite leaked classified or highly sensitive information in what appears to be a broader administration effort to paint a portrait of the president of the United States as a strong leader on national security issues,” McCain said in June 2012.

This week, when asked by CQ Roll Call whether the GOP’s position has been inconsistent between the New York Times and AP incidents — and therefore before and after the 2012 presidential election — McCain presented a more nuanced view of perpetrating leaks.

“It depends. If it’s a wide net and let’s throw it out there and see what we catch, that’s one thing. If you have specific information about an individual, then that’s the Valerie Plame affair. Then you go after that individual that breached national security, so that varies,” McCain said Tuesday.

Cornyn engaged in a testy exchange last June with Deputy Attorney General James Cole over the earlier national security leaks, questioning whether they constituted a federal crime and demanding to know what the DOJ was doing about it.

Yet on Wednesday, he sent a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., prodding him on his involvement in the AP affair.

“The regulations — important guarantees of press freedom — should result in modest use of such subpoenas, which makes your statement yesterday that you were not sure how many you had authorized troubling,” Cornyn wrote.

Meanwhile, Schumer reintroduced a reporter shield bill that failed to become law in 2009 but was supported by the White House and the news media at the time. The legislation would protect journalists from having to reveal confidential sources and would establish a legal framework for determining the limited national security exception circumstances under which protected information would be subject to disclosure. Otherwise, it would provide “absolute” privilege to reporters in the case of disputes.

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