Attorney General Eric Holder said today that the federal government has launched criminal and civil investigations into the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that is now the worst in U.S. history.
Holder declined to name the specific companies or individuals under investigation but said the criminal investigation has already been going on for "some weeks," reported ABC's George Stephanopoulos, who attended the afternoon press conference.
Just last week, the Justice Department had asked BP to preserve documents related to the spill, describing it as a "fact-finding" mission. The language about the department's mission has changed dramatically since then.
Holder, who was in New Orleans today to meet with Gulf Coast state attorneys general, said federal environmental laws give him the power to pursue investigations into a "wide range of possible violations."
Earlier today in Washington, President Obama nodded toward the possibility of criminal wrongdoing.
The president met with the two men heading up his commission on the spill, former Sen. Bob Graham of Florida and former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Bill Reilly. The commission will report its findings in six months.
In comments following the meeting, the president said their job would be "to thoroughly examine the spill and its causes" and to protect the nation from future catastrophe.
In his first public comments on possible criminal actions related to the spill, Obama said, "If our laws were broken, leading to this death and destruction, my solemn pledge is that we will bring those responsible to justice on behalf of the victims of this catastrophe and the people of the Gulf region."
Any criminal investigation into the spill will be overseen by the Environment and Natural Resources Divison, while the civil inquiry will be handled by the Department of Justice's Civil Division. The Department would also have to represent the government, including the Minerals Management Service, in any future litigation.
There was also news today that the federal government has been reaching out to a surprising source for expertise on the spill -- Hollywood director James Cameron.
The "Avatar" and "Titanic" mastermind and other scientists met today with EPA and other federal officials for a brainstorming session on ways to stop the spewing oil leak.
Cameron is considered an expert on underwater filming and remote vehicle technologies, with skills honed while filming the debris of the Titanic on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
Despite the news of a federal probe into the spill, Louisiana leaders again expressed outrage today over the government's response to the spill.
Gov. Bobby Jindal called on the federal government to take BP to task and "hold them to the fire," while at the same time begging for faster federal action on his request to build barrier islands that could keep oil from surging into marshlands.
"You wouldn't tell a drowning person to give us time for another study," the Republican said, repeating his pleading request to start building. "We need to be rescued now. We need help now.
Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, a Republican, called the delay in the plans' approval a "dog and pony show" and said that the barrier island construction should have started weeks ago.