The top Republican in the US Congress demanded
answers Wednesday to a host of scandals plaguing the White House,
adding to the combative atmosphere facing President Barack Obama.
The demand came from Speaker of the House John Boehner after an inspection of Internal Revenue Service practices found that the federal tax collection agency used "inappropriate criteria" to target conservative political groups for extra scrutiny, according to the agency's internal watchdog.
"The IRS has admitted to targeting conservatives," Boehner said. "Now, my question isn't about who's going to resign. My question is, who's going to jail over this scandal?"
The Obama administration has been reeling from one revelation after another in recent weeks, including disclosures that his justice department snooped on telephone records of the Associated Press news service over a leak about a terrorist plot.
The White House has insisted that the first it heard of either controversy was from news reports about them.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said there would be consequences from the investigation that has been opened into alleged tax authority bias against conservative groups.
Obama was to meet with Treasury Department officials later Wednesday to say he expects people to be held accountable, Carney said.
"Those who are responsible for the failures need to be held accountable," Carney said.
On the AP leak controversy, Carney said Obama was a "strong defender" of the first amendment to the constitution that protects free speech, and a "firm believer" in the importance of press.
But Carney also said that Obama, as commander in chief, must protect national security - an argument the Obama administration has used in at least six crackdowns on persons in government who leaked information to the media.
The White House has also come under renewed scrutiny for its handling of the terrorist attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya last year.
"What I want is the truth," Boehner said.
Attorney General Eric Holder faced tough questions in Congress over the secret seizure of AP journalists' phone records, but could offer no satisfying answers because he himself had been under investigation in the probe.
The affair involved apparent leaks to the AP about a foiled terrorist plot in Yemen to bomb an airplane in May 2012. The story was widely reported in the US media, and John Brennan, the top White House counterterrorism official, reassured the public on May 8, 2012, that the bomb plot had not advanced sufficiently to be a public threat.
The AP, which has angrily protested the secret seizure of its phone records for a two month period last year, held off in publishing its story at the request of security officials, according to AP stories published in US media.
Under Department of Justice rules, only the attorney general can approve the subpoena of information from the media. Congress members also noted that media executives are supposed to be consulted before such steps are taken.
In the case of the AP, neither happened. Holder handed off responsibility for the subpoenas to a deputy, James Cole, recusing himself from the case.
But under questioning from Congress, he could not recall the date this happened, and he admitted there was no written record of the handoff - an admission that astounded Congressman Spencer Bachus.
"Well, do you - would you - do you think that it would be a best practice to memorialize that recusal?" Bachus stuttered.
"I guess it might be helpful," Holder said.
Outrage over the seizure of AP records has provoked an outpouring of protests from US newspapers and industry organizations.
It has also sparked a renewal of efforts in Congress to pass a shield law that would protect journalists and their confidential sources.
The Free Flow of Information Act, stalled since 2009 in Congress, would protect journalists from being forced to reveal confidential sources unless all other attempts to get the information are exhausted and there is intense public interest in exposure.
Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer said Wednesday he would introduce the bill in the Senate. Congressman John Conyers, also a Democrat, said he would reintroduce the same bill in the lower chamber, calling it a "common sense measure."
"This kind of law would balance national security needs against the public's right to the free flow of information. At minimum, our bill would have ensured a fairer, more deliberate process in this case," Schumer said in a statement.
It is unclear whether the bill would have shielded the AP since it would include exceptions for leaks of classified information that harms national security interests, but would set up a legal process to approve subpoenas with an eye toward protecting press freedoms, his office said.
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