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Holder: Leak probes target government officials, not reporters

By Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Thu June 6, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Judiciary Committee asks Holder to appear to explain Fox News statements
  • GOP senator suggests Holder "distracted by controversies of his own making"
  • GOP levels allegations of perjury after Holder's statements in May regarding probes
  • Justice will never prosecute reporter for doing job while he is at helm, he says

(CNN) -- The Justice Department will never prosecute journalists for doing their jobs, and recent probes into national security leaks targeted government officials, not reporters, Attorney General Eric Holder said in remarks to a Senate committee Thursday.

Holder, amid a cloud of controversy for investigations in recent years involving The Associated Press and Fox News, said he has launched a review of existing Justice Department guidelines on investigations involving the press, and he is meeting with journalists to discuss those guidelines.

"The department goal in investigating leak cases is to identify and prosecute government officials who jeopardize government secrets," Holder told the Senate Appropriations Committee during a wide-ranging budget hearing that included questions about the federal prison system, drone strikes and the closing of the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

He added that as long as he is at the Justice helm, he will never prosecute a reporter for doing her or his job. After Holder's testimony, the House Judiciary Committee asked him in writing to appear this month to explain testimony he gave May 15 concerning the Fox News case, in which a reporter was labeled a criminal co-conspirator during a leak investigation.

Switching directions during his allotted time to speak Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois, raised questions about this week's report that the National Security Agency and FBI were monitoring Americans' phone records. He asked specifically whether Holder could assure him that no member of Congress had been monitored, as it might give the executive branch leverage over the legislative branch.

Holder responded that it wasn't an appropriate venue to answer the question, to which Kirk said the appropriate answer was, "No, we stayed in our lane, and I assure you we did not spy on members of Congress."

"There has been no intention to spy on members of Congress and members of the Supreme Court," Holder said.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, chairwoman of the committee, interrupted the back-and-forth to say that the matter deserved a briefing before the entire Senate, and involving the NSA and Holder.

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Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, the ranking GOP member of the committee, opened his remarks by saying the Justice Department was "mired in a controversy of late" that raised questions about the Justice Department's "adherence to the rule of law" and Holder's ability to lead. He further said Americans deserved an attorney general "not distracted by controversies of his own making."

Holder emphasized he was "fully engaged" in efforts to resolve these problems and evaluates his own performance on a daily basis.

"I have not done a perfect job. I think I've done a good job, but I think I could do better," he said, adding that his meetings with journalists are aimed at formulating new policies and regulations "and hopefully get that behind us."

Responding to Shelby's query about whether there would be a tipping point at which Holder might need to step down, Holder -- who has suggested he might not serve for President Barack Obama's entire second term -- said he had more goals to accomplish before he sat down with Obama to discuss a transition.

"The tipping point might be fatigue," Holder told Shelby. "You get to a point where you just get tired."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein did not continue the line of questioning regarding the leaks but defended Holder and lamented that the hearing was used to berate him.

"I believe in your integrity," she said. "I believe you're a good attorney general. I believe you've had undue problems that are hard to anticipate. I believe you're responding as best you possibly could."

Holder is under fire for two instances, in particular. The first involves his Justice Department obtaining two months of phone records from The Associated Press as part of an investigation into the news agency's May 2012 coverage of a foiled airline bomb plot in Yemen. The second case involves Justice obtaining the phone records, e-mails and security badge information of Fox News' James Rosen, who reported on classified intelligence about North Korea in 2009.

No reporters were singled out as potential criminals in the AP case, but in the Fox case, an FBI agent said Rosen might be an "aider and abettor and/or co-conspirator" to disclosing secret information.

The Rosen case has been of most interest to Holder's critics because of a May 15 remark he made to Congress about the leaks.

"With regard to the potential prosecution of the press for the disclosure of material, that is not something that I've ever been involved in or heard of or would think would be a wise policy," Holder said.

Republican Rep. Darrell Issa called Holder's statement "a lie, by most people's standards," and the GOP-controlled House Judiciary Committee is investigating whether the attorney general lied under oath.

Holder wrote Sens. Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, and James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, of the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, saying -- as he did before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday -- that he was reviewing his department's guidelines regarding investigations involving the media.

"As part of this review, I have hosted a series of productive meetings with representatives of news organizations and other interested parties in order to solicit their valuable input," Holder wrote. "I welcome your contributions to this process and hope that both of you will join the Deputy Attorney General and me when we schedule meetings with interested members of Congress."

Read Holder's letter (PDF)

Goodlatte replied in a letter signed by every GOP member of the House committee -- but no Democrats -- that none of Holder's statements so far, nor those of his subordinates, "constitutes a satisfactory on-the-record response." Goodlatte asked Holder to appear before the committee June 18 or, if that isn't feasible, to pick a date between then and June 28, Goodlatte told Holder.

Referring to Holder's May 15 testimony, the letter said, "This statement left members of the Committee and the American people with the clear understanding that the Department had never taken the unprecedented step of characterizing a member of the media as a criminal co-conspirator in a sworn court document."

Read Goodlatte's letter (PDF)

The White House and Justice Department have both issued statements saying Rosen was never prosecuted, so any assertion that Holder lied is wrong.

The Justice Department has also said that Holder recused himself from the AP probe because he had been interviewed about the leak during the investigation, but Republicans say the statement was missing a key piece of information: When did he recuse himself?

After hearing concerns that the Justice Department's investigations had put reporters at a legal risk for simply doing their jobs, Holder sat down with various news executives last week. He is continuing those meetings this week.

"We expressed our concerns that reporters felt some fear for doing their jobs, that they were concerned about using their e-mail, using their office telephone and that we need to have the freedom to do their job," Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron said after the meeting.

Holder told NBC News on Wednesday that he would not step down amid criticism over security leaks investigations.

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