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DOJ Seized Records Because 'Lives Were At Stake.' Really?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later in the program we'll talk about a story that another U.S. service member is being investigated for sexually abusing subordinates. This after a survey showed that service members reported tens of thousands of sexual assaults last year alone. We'll speak with three women in the Beauty Shop who know a lot about this subject to talk about why this problem persists and what can be done about it.

But first we want to tackle some of the other stories this week that have some critics asking whether this government, this administration, has abused its authority. This week it has been confirmed that the Department of Justice secretly obtained phone records from the Associated Press to investigate the leak of sensitive information. It's also been confirmed that the IRS gave special scrutiny to Tea Party groups in a manner that IRS officials themselves say was inappropriate and that the president called outrageous, if true.

Needless to say, conservatives and Republican lawmakers are outraged, but there are critics on both sides of the aisle. So we've called two analysts from both sides of the aisle to talk more about this. Ron Christie is with us. He's a Republican strategist and former assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush. Glad to have you back with us, Ron.

RON CHRISTIE: Always nice to see you, Michel.

MARTIN: Also with us, Corey Ealons. He's a former advisor to the Obama administration and the senior vice president of Vox Global. Corey, welcome back to you. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

COREY EALONS: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So we want to start with a story about the AP phone records. Attorney General Eric Holder held a press conference yesterday explaining why the Justice Department started looking into the AP. This is what he had to say.


ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: I've been a prosecutor since 1976 and I have to say that this is among, if not the most serious, it is within the top two or three most serious leaks that I've ever seen. It put the American people at risk, and that is not hyperbole. It put the American people at risk.

MARTIN: Now, the attorney general has now recused himself from the investigation which has now gone forward because he says he's already been interviewed by the FBI. And I do want to also mention that a number of media outlets, including this one, NPR, has sent a letter of protest to the Justice Department, saying that this was overreaching. So Corey, I'm going to start with you because this is the administration in which you served. Do you think that the Department of Justice was wrong?

EALONS: Well, I'll tell you, this is the classic conversation, the classic battle, between the American people's right to know, which is the role of the press, the role of the media in our country, versus the government's responsibility to protect its citizens. And right now I think we're at the very beginning of this conversation and investigating what actually happened here and why it happened.

One of the things that was interesting about what the attorney general said yesterday is that lives were at stake. There was an intonation that the reason they made the decision to pull these records and to try to identify the leaker through this method is because lives were at stake. That, I think, would be a credible reason to do so. However, there is a process that is in place to make sure that overreaching does not take place. And I think that's what we're concerned about right now.

MARTIN: So what are you saying? You're saying you haven't decided yet? You still don't know? You still don't know.

EALONS: I don't know and I don't think anyone else knows. I think an independent investigation of this issue needs to take place to find out what was the mitigating circumstances under why the decision was made. And I think ultimately it's going to come down to, was there an imminent threat?

MARTIN: Ron, well, the AP says that they believe that a story about a failed al-Qaida bomb plot in Yemen triggered this search for these phone records. There has been speculation from a number of media outlets, including the New York Times and the Atlantic, that the story might have blown the cover of a double agent who'd infiltrated al-Qaida. If that's true, do you think the attorney general has a point?

CHRISTIE: No, I don't. Absolutely I don't. I believe that the First Amendment is in place for a reason and I worry about the chilling effect that this will have to abridge the right of reporters to be able to have their sources, to be able to track down the leads that they were doing with their stories.

If the Justice Department was so worried in this particular case about our national security interests, I find it very interesting that during the Bush administration President Bush actually called the publisher of the New York Times into the Oval Office and said for national security reasons we don't want you to leak this sensitive information because it could put Americans at risk, and the Times ran it. So if it wasn't good enough for us in the Times case, for us to have had that secrecy that we wanted, it's not good enough for the Obama administration to skirt around, I believe, the First Amendment.

MARTIN: Corey? Does he have a point?

EALONS: Well, we have to appreciate the circumstances under which this conversation - the decisions were made. Before that story ran, the Justice Department asked the AP to hold it for national security purposes, which they did. Once they felt - the AP felt that the story no longer had an impression on national security, then they ran the story.

The concern is the leaker. And I agree with Ron that the challenge here is that whenever you have a government organization reaching into and having an impact on one of our founding institutions such as the press and stepping on potentially the First Amendment, which is therefore a reason to make sure that the American people have insight into what's happening in their government, that's where you have a problem. And that's where the question...

MARTIN: Before we move on to our other subject, though, I mean you would not deny, would you, that there have been some very tense relationships between this administration and the media. And it's ironic, given that many people on the Republican side believe that, you know, the media is too close to the Obama administration, but in fact would you confirm that there have been some very tense interactions between your former administration and the media?

EALONS: I would say that there's been no more tense notions with this administration than any previous one. I mean if you look at what happened during the Bush administration, when you look at what happened during the Clinton administration, during the Carter administration, I think there's always that tension. I think that's generally a healthy tension, because you don't want the two organizations to be too close, but at the same time there needs to be mutual respect and understanding for the role that each entity plays.

And right now there may have been some overreaching. I think it's yet to be determined.

MARTIN: We want to talk to the other big story that people are talking about this week - reports - the reports broke out late last week that the IRS was taking a closer look at groups that were applying for non-profit status if they had words like Tea Party or Patriot in their names. And I want to ask - Corey, I'll go to you again on this, do you think that the administration overstepped its bounds here?

EALONS: I think the IRS overstepped its bounds. I would not be as expansive to the say the administration overstepped their bounds. And here's what we know at this point. The IG report has come out. There's been an apology from the office that conducted this investigation and the way that they did, or this survey and the way that they did. And ultimately we now have two very strong statements from the president, as you said in the opening, that called this outrageous and has now called on Secretary Lew to stand up and make sure that a proper investigation is conducted and whomever's responsible for putting this act into place takes responsibility, and I assume ultimately will be fired.

MARTIN: Well, Ron, you know, the question becomes - I'm still sort of interested in - I'm not quite sure who the primary actors were in this and whether this was directed by political partisans with the intention of harassing people who were perceived to be political opponents, if they were career persons.

I mean now it turns out that, you know, House Speaker John Boehner has already publicly speculated about who should go to jail here and I want to ask you if you think that's appropriate.

CHRISTIE: I'm not going to speculate as to who should go to jail but the one thing I won't speculate about is whose responsibility this is. This is the Obama administration. You know, the president was out the other day saying that this is an independent agency. Well, no, sir, actually it's not. The head of the IRS is a political appointee who reports to the secretary of the Treasury who is a political appointee, both of whom are in the Obama administration. I do not understand. I think this is one of the most...

MARTIN: Well, you know, it's in the FBI - for example, the FBI director is an independent agency who was appointed by a political figure who transcends administrations. I mean that's a similar...

CHRISTIE: No. No, no. No, no. What we're talking about here ultimately is responsible. It is the responsibility of two Obama appointees who oversee the IRS to make sure that this sort of chicanery doesn't take place. It did. Now, the question...

MARTIN: So what should happen? That's - what should happen now?

CHRISTIE: Well, first of all, I don't understand this president. This president is walking and sitting and being so passive. I would be a lot more hands-on. First of all, I would apologize to the American people. Jack Lew, the secretary of the treasury, hasn't apologized to the American people. This is an egregious - in my view - breach of trust. They're standing by, well, let's just wait for the investigation. Let's see where it goes. No. You need to set up a framework, Mr. President. You need to say what this framework is, how you're going to hold people accountable in response for this, and outline to the American people when you expect this to be done. That's why I'm angry with this. I am so beyond livid at the fact that the president seems to be standing by. Oh, well, folks will get back to me and, oh, I heard about this in the newspaper.

MARTIN: Well, Corey Ealons, does he have a point? I mean, the fact is that there are people who are kind of raising analogies to the Nixon Administration, where we know that tax audits, or abusive or aggressive auditing was targeted at people who were perceived to be political opponents of that president. And a lot of those people were journalists, or they were progressives.

EALONS: One very quick point of clarification here. There is no evidence that this president had any role in directing this IRS to conduct the investigation in the way that they did. So I think comparing what's happening here to what happened with Watergate, I think, is a dramatic overreach and...

MARTIN: OK. But what about Ron's point that the president needs to be more vocal about this?

EALONS: Well, I don't know how much more vocal you can get. He's issued two statements saying how outrageous this is. He's called for his secretary of the treasury to make sure that a full investigation is conducted, and the Justice Department has launched their own investigation. So this is much more open-and-shut to me, as far as how it's being handled, the speed with which it's being handled and the voracity with which it's being handled.

I think that moving in the right direction on this IRS issue - and appreciate what we're talking about here. The IRS is the big monster sitting in the room waiting for you to mess up. Everybody's afraid of the IRS. Right? So the fact that they would reach into and overstep their bounds by targeting conservative organizations - and it doesn't matter if they're liberal...

MARTIN: For special scrutiny.

EALONS: For special scrutiny. Absolutely. Is absolutely unconscionable, when you appreciate the amount of power they have and the impact they have on the American people's lives.

MARTIN: But before we let you go, I really have to ask - and I apologize, Ron. You got cheated in this conversation. But Corey, this - again, do you think that this puts the president's second-term agenda at risk? Because there is so much anger now directed at the administration because of this conduct. Do you think it puts the rest of the term at risk in terms of...


MARTIN: ...accomplishing anything?

EALONS: No. First of all, we have - well, we have to be realistic about where we are. First of all, there is more to come in each of these conversations with the IRS and with the DOJ AP issue. What the White House needs to do is to deal with them rapidly and succinctly and move past them, and they need to do so as rapidly as possible.

Right now, the challenge they're having is wrapping their hands around the fact that they're dealing with all of these big issues at one time. And that is a challenge for this White House or any White House, I think. So, ultimately, I think they're going to be fine, but they really do need to get in front of this and move on quickly.

MARTIN: That was Corey Ealons. He's a senior vice president for VOX Global and a former director of media for the Obama administration. He was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios, along with Republican strategist, former assistant to President George W. Bush, Ron Christie. He's now the president of Christie Strategies.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

CHRISTIE: Thanks, Michel.

EALONS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.