The House Judiciary Committee opened an investigation Wednesday into whether Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. lied under oath in testimony about the Justice Department’s surveillance of journalists, while the White House declared again that President Obama “absolutely” has confidence in Mr. Holder.
Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican, and Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, asked Mr. Holder in a letter to explain “discrepancies” between his sworn testimony before the panel earlier this month and the Justice Department’s decision to obtain a search warrant for the emails of James Rosen, the chief Washington correspondent for Fox News.
That probe by Justice is part of a wide-ranging investigation into leaks of classified government information to the media, a development that has Mr. Obama backpedaling over his support for the First Amendment.
Mr. Holder’s testimony in question came May 15, when he told the committee “with regard to potential prosecution of the press for the disclosure of material, that is not something that I have ever been involved in, heard of, or would think would be a wise policy.” But Mr. Goodlatte said just days later, media reports revealed that Mr. Holder approved the search warrant in May 2010 to obtain emails belonging to Mr. Rosen.
Mr. Goodlatte told the attorney general that media reports and statements issued by the Justice Department regarding the search warrants for Mr. Rosen’s emails “appear to be at odds with your sworn testimony before the committee.”
“We believe — and we hope you will agree — it is imperative that the committee, the Congress, and the American people be provided a full and accurate account of your involvement in and approval of these search warrants,” he wrote, adding that he wants answers to his questions by Wednesday.
The White House rushed to the attorney general’s defense, with press secretary Jay Carney saying that Mr. Holder “testified truthfully.” He said based on his reading of media reports, “no prosecutorial action was taken and none is contemplated” against Mr. Rosen.
Asked for the second time this month whether Mr. Obama still has confidence in the attorney general, Mr. Carney replied, “Absolutely. He absolutely does, yes.”
Mr. Sensenbrenner has already called for Mr. Holder to resign, and said if he fails to do so, Mr. Obama should fire him.
Justice also has seized phone records of The Associated Press in another investigation into leaks of classified information. When the disclosures surfaced earlier this month, Mr. Obama reacted cautiously at first, saying the government needed to balance First Amendment rights against the dangers posed by the publication of government secrets.
But in the weeks since, Mr. Obama has come out more forcefully in defense of press freedoms, saying he is concerned that the Justice probes could have a “chilling effect” on the ability of the media to hold government accountable.
Last week, the president announced that he had ordered Mr. Holder to convene meetings with media representatives to review his department’s policies regarding leak investigations, and to report back to Mr. Obama by July 12.
However, several news organizations rebelled against those plans Wednesday because the Justice Department wants them to be off-the-record, meaning the conversations cannot be used.
The Associated Press and The New York Times each said it would only attend the conversations if they are on-the-record.
AP president and chief executive Gary Pruitt told his staffers at an internal meeting Wednesday that the records included “thousands and thousands” of calls. According to a staffer who spoke with the Huffington Post, Mr. Pruitt also underlined that AP granted an administration request not to report the story in question, about a thwarted terrorism plot in Yemen, and only did so when it learned Mr. Obama would soon announce the CIA operation publicly.
The president also has called for Congress to approve a federal “shield law” to protect the press, although his administration attempted to water down the protections in an earlier effort.
Mr. Goodlatte said he had “great concern” about Mr. Holder’s sworn testimony, which came in response to a question from Rep. Henry C. “Hank” Johnson Jr., Georgia Democrat, regarding the use of the Espionage Act to prosecute members of the media for publishing classified material.
Days later, he said media reports revealed that in May 2010, the Justice Department had sought and obtained a search warrant for emails belonging to Mr. Rosen over his June 2009 publication of an article that allegedly contained classified material and that the investigation of Mr. Rosen and the search warrant application for his private emails was approved “at the highest levels” of the Justice Department, including “discussions” with Mr. Holder.
Mr. Goodlatte, in the letter, noted that The New Yorker magazine obtained a copy of the 44-page search warrant affidavit, which alleged that the source of the material was Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory employee detailed to the State Department.
In the affidavit in support of the search warrant, FBI Agent Reginald B. Reyes, stated, “there is probable cause to believe that the Reporter [Rosen] has committed a violation” of 18 USC §793(d) [the Espionage Act] “at the very least, either as an aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator of Mr. Kim.”
“How can you claim to have never been involved in the potential prosecution of a member of the media but you were admittedly involved in discussions regarding Mr. Rosen’s email?” the lawmakers’ letter asked. “How can you claim to have never even heard of the potential prosecution of the press but were, at a minimum, involved in discussions regarding Mr. Rosen?”
The committee is seeking all regulations and internal Justice Department policies governing the issuance of search warrants for members of the media.
The Justice Department has said it never intended to prosecute Mr. Rosen. The lawmakers’ letter asks Mr. Holder why the search warrant identified Mr. Rosen as a “co-conspirator.”