The Justice Department admitted Monday that it secretly seized phone records from the Associated Press in its attempt to track down a damaging press leak, further rattling a White House already on the defensive over its handling of the Benghazi, Libya, terrorist attacks and new revelations that the IRS had targeted conservative groups that opposed President Obama and other Democrats.
Obama's Justice Department was monitoring more than 20 personal and work phones used by AP journalists in New York, Washington, Connecticut and on Capitol Hill between April and May of 2012. The news service reported that Justice officials may have been trying to determine how the AP obtained details of a 2012 CIA operation in Yemen that prevented a terrorist from detonating a bomb on a U.S.-bound airliner.
"This is obviously disturbing," said House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif. "Coming within a week of revelations that the White House lied to the American people about the Benghazi attacks and the IRS targeted conservative Americans for their political beliefs, Americans should take notice that top Obama administration officials increasingly see themselves as above the law and emboldened by the belief that they don't have to answer to anyone."
With the Internal Revenue Service probing tax records of political opposition groups and the Justice Department monitoring journalists' phones, Obama and his administration were accused Monday of using tactics unseen since former President Nixon and Watergate.
It also raised the specter of even more congressional hearings at a time when Obama wants lawmakers focused on his call for comprehensive immigration reform and tighter gun controls, among other things.
White House press secretary Jay Carney, a former reporter, said the White House was unaware of the Justice Department phone monitoring.
"Other than press reports," he said, "we have no knowledge of any attempt by the Justice Department to seek phone records of the AP."
The Justice Department issued a statement saying that getting a subpoena for a journalist's phone was a last resort. And it defended its secretiveness in seizing the AP records, saying it does not tell the targeted organization of its monitoring if the revelations "pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation."
News of the Justice Department phone monitoring broke just hours after Obama used an unrelated White House press appearance to defend his handling of the Sept. 11 attacks in Benghazi, which left four people dead, including an ambassador -- and to denounce the IRS for targeting tax-exempt groups based on their political beliefs.
He dismissed ongoing Republican criticism over Benghazi as a political "sideshow," saying, "There's no there, there." And he asserted that he had "no patience" for what the IRS did and pledged to "find out exactly what happened on this."
But the monitoring of reporters could be even more damning for a White House that constantly trumpets its commitment to openness.
"When journalists are intimidated, attacked, imprisoned or disappear, individuals begin to self-censor, fear replaces truth, and all of our societies suffer," Obama said on World Press Freedom Day last year, condemning other governments' media suppression.
Obama's mounting troubles weren't lost even on casual Washington observers.
"Obama isn't having too much fun right now," quipped Hank Nelson, of San Diego, who was taking photos outside the White House gate. "When it rains, it pours, right?"