Obama (left) and Holder
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / The Associated Press)

After the Associated Press phone-records story broke last week, Attorney General Eric Holder declared that he didn’t know too much about the specifics of the case. That was because he’d recused himself from involvement in the leak investigation. He subsequently appeared before a congressional committee and said the same things, many times over. At around the same time, White House officials, most notably press secretary Jay Carney, refrained from detailed answers on the rationale that the case was an ongoing criminal investigation.

Critics have had fun satirizing all the non-responses:

Officialdom’s inability or unwillingness (or both) to address the facts of the case left quite a void in the coverage of the AP-Justice Department subpoena story. The media, already inclined to rip the Justice Department for its acts, lacked a thorough and passionate defense from the government itself. Leak investigators must have felt agony watching the one-sided coverage unfold.

Then a few former Justice Department officials stepped in. In an op-ed that hit the New York Times today, William P. Barr, Jamie S. Gorelick and Kenneth Wainstein, all high-ranking Justice appointees in previous administrations, strung together the other side of the controversy. Here’s a chunk of their argument:

The United States and its allies were trying to locate a master bomb builder affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a group that was extremely difficult to penetrate. After considerable effort and danger, an agent was inserted inside the group. Although that agent succeeded in foiling one serious bombing plot against the United States, he was rendered ineffective once his existence was disclosed.

The leak of such sensitive source information not only denies us an invaluable insight into our adversaries’ plans and operations. It is also devastating to our overall ability to thwart terrorist threats, because it discourages our allies from working and sharing intelligence with us and deters would-be sources from providing intelligence about our adversaries.

There’s more to it, too. Spend some time with it.

The info-vacuum on Justice’s side of the debate prompted the op-ed. Gorelick, in a chat today with the Erik Wemple Blog, said, “As former Justice Department officials, we felt that the public discussion of the AP subpoenas issue was quite distorted and that … the perspective that the department as an institution would have had not been fully articulated or heard in the public debate,” said Gorelick. Note: Jack Shafer of Reuters pieced together an account of what the administration was likely thinking.

The curious part of the defense cobbled together by the former Justice Department officials is the degree to which it relies on publicly available information. That is, these former officials don’t appear to have used any privileged access in constructing their argument. Gorelick says the piece rested on reporting by the Los Angeles Times, Reuters and others, not to mention the Justice Department’s own letter on the controversy.

And if you’re a current Justice Department official, you cannot necessarily cite those public reports the way a former Justice Department official can. “It’s very difficult when you actually know the facts to say, ‘I’m not talking about what I know — I’m only saying what’s been reported,” says Gorelick, noting that reporters might interpret such an account as official confirmation of previous stories that may have relied on anonymous sources. Justice Department leaders, she says, “are under constraints even if [the information] has been reported.”

Her conclusion: “This story is not that hard to report on objectively if you care to.”

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.