Attorney General Eric Holder, long accustomed to GOP attacks, faced bipartisan ire
in the House Wednesday from lawmakers looking for answers on multiple fronts.
Most of the Judiciary Committee’s questions
during the four-hour session revolved around the Justice Department’s decision to subpoena journalists’ phone records in connection with a leak investigation — but there was little new information in the responses from Holder, who announced Tuesday that he had recused himself from the inquiry.
Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said the Justice Department’s handling of the investigation — which eventually obtained records of phone calls from home, office and cellphone lines used by several Associated Press reporters and editors — “appears to be contrary to the law and standard procedure.”
He pressed Holder to explain why the news organization was not given advance notice of the subpoenas.
“I do not know
with regard to this particular case why that was or was not done. … I am not familiar
with the reasons why the email was disrupted in the way that it was,” Holder said. “I have faith in the people who would actually be responsible for this case [that] they were aware of the rules, and they followed them. But I don’t have a factual basis
to answer the question because I was recused.”
The toughest criticism for Holder on the Democratic side came from Rep. Zoe Lofgren
“It seems to me clear that the actions of the department have, in fact, impaired the First Amendment,” Lofgren said. “Reporters who might have previously believed that a confidential source would speak to them will no longer have that level of confidence because those confidential sources are now going to be chilled in their relationship with the press.”
“It seems to me the damage done to a free press is substantial and will continue until corrective action is taken,” she added. “I think this is a very serious matter that concerns all of us, no matter your party affiliation.”
Holder pleaded ignorance
about the details, but said he thought the department should explain its actions in more detail when the probe ends.
Several lawmakers expressed surprise that Holder had recused himself from the AP-related probe without generating any paperwork or email to document the decision.
“As I think about it, … that actually might be a better policy to have,”
Holder conceded late in the hearing.
The ranking Democrat
on the panel, Michigan Rep. John Conyers
, began his opening remarks with a sharp criticism of the department’s foray into the AP journalists’ contacts.
“I am deeply troubled by the notion that our government would secretly pursue such a broad array of media phone records over such a long period of time,”
Conyers said a reporter’s shield law
, which failed to pass in recent Congresses, was sorely needed. “I suggest that those of us with concerns about a free press also work together to achieve a better balance in the law,” he said, calling it a common-sense measure.
His statement did not note that the version of the bill the Senate took up in 2009 and the Obama administration endorsed contained an exception for national security cases
that likely would have rendered it inapplicable in the probe that led to the AP subpoenas.