President Barack Obama at a press conference on Thursday strongly defended the Department of Justice's controversial secret seizure of journalists' phone records during an investigation into leaked national security information.
"Leaks related to national security can put people at risk," Obama said in response to a reporter's question as he stood beside visiting Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey at a Rose Garden press conference. "I make no apologies, and I don't think the American people would expect me as commander in chief not to be concerned about information that might compromise their missions or might get them killed. And the flip side of it is, we also live in a democracy where a free press, free expression and the open flow of information helps hold me accountable, helps hold our government accountable and helps our democracy function."
In keeping with the White House's official reaction since news of the seizures broke last Friday, Obama refused to comment specifically on the case, citing its ongoing nature. Instead, he stressed the "balance" he believes is necessary between freedom of the press and the security of individuals potentially harmed by leaked information. The president voiced support for New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer's plan to reintroduce legislation granting reporters and their sources federal protections, known as a media "shield" law.
Obama added in response to a follow-up question that he has "complete confidence in Eric Holder as attorney general," saying "he's an outstanding attorney general and does his job with integrity, and I expect he will continue to do so."
The comments marked the president's first public statements about the DOJ seizing the phone records since the news surfaced.
Questions regarding international relations and concern over the ongoing deadly crisis in Syria factored prominently in the press conference, but the session was filled with questions and statements about the Internal Revenue Service targeting conservatives, the DOJ's phone record seizure and the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya.
Obama used Thursday's press conference to call for increased security measures at U.S. embassies overseas and asked for help from lawmakers in making that a reality.
"I’m calling on Congress to work with us and support and fully fund our budget request,” Obama said. “We need to come together and truly honor the sacrifices" of those killed in the attack.
The White House on Wednesday afternoon released email exchanges related to talking points about the 2012 attack in Benghazi in an attempt to tamp down fierce Republican criticism over how the attack was presented by the administration and accusations of a politically motivated cover-up. The emails did not appear to contain instances of political motivations spurring changes to the talking points, and they showed that deletions suggesting al-Qaida was behind the attacks were made independently by the CIA.
On the IRS scandal, Obama said on Thursday that he found out from the news media about the inspector general's report on the IRS' targeting conservatives applying for tax-exempt status.
"I can assure you I certainly did not know anything about the IG report" until it was presented by the media, the president said.
Obama on Wednesday evening announced that the IRS' acting commissioner had been forced out due to the scandal.
Erdogan on Thursday—through a translator—said Syria topped the agenda at his morning meeting with Obama. He said Middle East peace and relations with Israel also were discussed.
"We both agree that [Syrian President Bashar al]-Assad needs to go," Obama said, adding that this is the "only way to resolve this crisis." Obama commended Turkey for assisting Syrian refugees and increasing pressure on the Assad regime.