The controversy over Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department's investigation over news media leaks is providing Holder's Republican critics with a new line of attack to go after him, although this time they have been joined by the news media.
In an effort to explain the department’s handling of warrants and subpoenas for reporters’ records in leak investigations, Holder invited leaders of news organizations to meet with him today. But while representatives of the Washington Post, Politico, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal said they would attend the meeting, the New York Times, CNN, Fox News, CBS News, Reuters, McClatchy, The Associated Press and The Huffington Post refused to participate in an off-the-record meeting.
Meanwhile, an ABC News spokesman told Politico that the network “will attend the meeting and press for that conversation to be put on the record.”
It should be noted that journalists have off-the-record conversations with government officials on a daily basis during the course of news gathering; it is a standard part of the reporter’s arsenal, used to get background information or to shield sources who want to leak sensitive information without being identified.
Newspaper editorial boards also occasionally have meetings with government officials that are considered off-the-record, so Holder’s request is not that unusual.
There have been reports that Holder personally signed off on the warrant that allowed the Justice Department to search Fox News reporter James Rosen’s personal email. In addition, the Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors of The Associated Press, which the AP’s top executive called a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into how news organizations gather news.
Most observers believe the Justice Department’s inquiry was related to an exclusive AP report on May 7, 2012, that the CIA had stopped a plot by an al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen to destroy a U.S.-bound airliner.
Republicans are accusing Holder of misleading Congress in testimony over whether the Justice Department has considered prosecuting journalists under the Espionage Act for publishing government secrets.
House Judiciary Committee chairman, Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, and a Republican colleague, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, released a letter in which they expressed “great concern” about Holder’s testimony before the committee this month, saying it “appeared to be at odds” with court documents that have come to light involving a warrant for emails of Rosen, the Fox News reporter.
Even Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan said he was “deeply troubled” by some of the investigative tactics used in recent leak cases.
“Certainly, it is fair to ask additional questions about the Rosen investigation and any role the attorney general may have played in it, but I do not believe it credible to level charges that he may have intentionally misled the committee on this matter before we know the facts of the case in question,” Conyers said.
Holder told The Daily Beast that the investigations followed existing laws and guidelines, but did acknowledge that the rules “need to be updated.” He said the matter was “an opportunity for the department to consider how we strike the right balance between the interests of law enforcement and freedom of the press.”
The Daily Beast quoted unnamed aides as saying Holder was “also beginning to feel a creeping sense of personal remorse,” but the New York Times quoted a close friend of Holder, Reid Weingarten, as saying the attorney general hasn’t discussed such feelings with him.
“He’s not immune from the criticism, but I think he sees this First Amendment-security conflict as almost impossibly difficult,” Weingarten said, adding: “He hasn’t confessed or cried to me, that’s for sure. What I sense in conversations with him is how horribly difficult the dilemma is when you have this situation. It’s important to get it right, and if we didn’t get it right — and that’s a big if — let’s button up the process now.”