Jay Carney endured an unrelenting grilling on Tuesday about what media watchdogs have called unprecedented actions by the Department of Justice to secretly obtain months of Associated Press phone records.
Journalists have been outraged since the AP revealed that it had been subjected to the secret probe, which saw the DOJ look at the records for at least 20 of its phone lines and at least six of its individual journalists over a period of at least two months. Carney was asked right away about the White House's view of the situation.
In response, he said flatly that there could be no comment, since he was duty-bound to maintain a separation between the White House and the investigation:
On the issue of what is a Department of Justice investigation, as I understand it, the president is a strong defender of the First Amendment and a firm believer in the need for the press to be unfettered in its ability to conduct investigative reporting and facilitate the free flow of information. He also, of course, recognizes the need for the Justice Department to investigate alleged criminal activity without undo influence. As I said yesterday, we have no knowledge other than press reports of any attempt by the Justice Department to seek phone numbers of the Associated Press.
We are not involved at the White House in any decisions made in connection with ongoing criminal investigations, as those matters are handled appropriately by the Justice Department—independently.
I understand there are a lot of questions about the reports about the Department of Justice's actions, and from my background I understand them well. But in this situation where the department appears to be conducting a criminal investigation, it would be wholly inappropriate for me to have answers to those questions. I don't have them and I have to refer you to the Department of Justice.
Carney later added about the scandal, "We don't have any independent knowledge ... [Obama] found out about the news reports yesterday on the road." This did not prevent reporters from continuing to try and find a way to get Carney to comment. CNN's Jessica Yellin, for instance, asked of the president, "Is he concerned about the precedent that this is setting, and that this is the legacy of his attorney general?'"
Carney, however, eluded the answers every time. He repeated himself so much that people on Twitter began joking about how much they were hearing the word "unfettered."
The press secretary emphasized what he said was a need for "striking a balance" between press freedom and national security interests. Speaking of the president, he said, "It is also true that he believes a balance needs to be struck between those goals and the need to protect classified information. You're not going to hear him say that it's okay for the nation's secrets to be freely reported when that information can endanger our national security and do harm to individuals."
He was dismissive, though, when asked about the media watchdogs, critics and freedom of press groups who have called the Department of Justice's actions "Nixonian."
"People who make those kinds of comparisons need to check their history," Carney said.