The House Judiciary Committee is investigating whether Attorney General Eric Holder lied under oath during his May 15 testimony on the Justice Department’s (DOJ) surveillance of reporters.
The panel is looking at a statement Holder made during a back-and-forth with Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) about whether the DOJ could prosecute reporters under the Espionage Act of 1917, an aide close to the matter told The Hill.
“In regard to potential prosecution of the press for the disclosure of material — this is not something I’ve ever been involved in, heard of, or would think would be wise policy,” Holder said during the hearing.
However, NBC News reported the following week that Holder personally approved a search warrant that labeled Fox News chief Washington correspondent James Rosen a co-conspirator in a national security leaks case.
The panel is investigating whether NBC’s report contradicts Holder’s claim that he had not looked into or been involved with a possible prosecution of the press in a leaks case.
The May 15 Judiciary hearing was held after The Associated Press revealed Justice had secretly subpoenaed its phone records in a separate leaks investigation.
Justice did not return a request for comment, but Johnson on Tuesday defended Holder, arguing his statement was specific to Johnson’s line of questioning about the Espionage Act and not meant to pertain to other investigations.
“The attorney general’s statement that no journalists have been prosecuted under the Espionage Act during his tenure is accurate,” he told The Hill.
Johnson said he raised the Espionage Act issue because he believes the law could be misused to target reporters due to the way it was written. He argued it should be changed.
“Congress is responsible for protecting the press while giving law enforcement the tools to prosecute officials who leak classified information,” Johnson said. “I support considering amendments to the Espionage Act and passing the Free Flow of Information Act to refine this balance.”
Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, told The Hill that Holder was “forthright” with the panel and that there was “no need to turn a policy disagreement into allegations of misconduct.”
But Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (Wis.), the second-ranking Judiciary Committee Republican, told The Hill that Holder should resign.
He accused the attorney general of misleading the panel during the investigation of the “Fast and Furious” gun-walking operation, and again when he claimed to not know about the AP probe.
“As we saw in Fast and Furious and are seeing now, Attorney General Holder refuses to hold himself accountable,” Sensenbrenner said. “He misled the Judiciary Committee under oath when he said he had not heard about Fast and Furious and he misled us again when he claimed to be unaware of the AP scandal. The head of DOJ should be someone the American people can trust. Attorney General Holder should resign.”
Justice’s probe into national security leaks is threatening to become the biggest controversy of Holder’s career.
President Obama last week said he was “troubled” by reports about the DOJ’s surveillance of reporters, and argued that journalists “should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs.”
He ordered Holder to review his department’s guidelines governing investigations that involve reporters. The DOJ will present its findings to the president on July 12.
A report in The Daily Beast over the weekend suggested Holder felt a sense of personal remorse over the aggressive tactics used in targeting the Fox News reporter. Citing aides close to Holder, the article said the Attorney General knew Justice would be besieged by questions about the two probes as he read a Washington Post story about the investigation of Rosen.
The DOJ seized Rosen’s personal emails and used other surveillance methods to investigate whether he was complicit in a leak of classified information. It also examined Rosen’s phone records and tracked his visits to the State Department using security-badge data during the 2009 probe.
Justice filed legal papers saying Rosen may have acted as “an aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator” by getting materials from a government official also under investigation.
The investigation was primarily focused on rooting out Rosen’s alleged source, a State Department worker who is facing federal charges for disclosing classified national security information and could see a trial as soon as next year. The DOJ has said it never intended to prosecute Rosen.
Some Republican senators have said Holder should not be in charge of reviewing his own department.
Speaking on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) called Holder’s review a “conflict of interest.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said a special counsel or some other independent body should be appointed to conduct the review.
The DOJ has also faced criticism over its seizure of phone records belonging to the AP. The news wire was never a target of that investigation.
The House voted to find Holder in contempt over his refusal to turn over documents to lawmakers on “Fast and Furious,” an operation in which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives purposely allowed guns to be illegally purchased in the United States and Mexico in the hope they could be tracked.
--This report was updated at 8 p.m.