Former Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) on Friday spoke out in defense of embattled Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderWith extreme gerrymanders locking in, Biden needs to make democracy preservation job one The Memo: Democrats may rue pursuit of Bannon Ben Affleck, Tracee Ellis Ross join anti-gerrymandering fundraiser with Clinton, Holder MORE, saying that the Justice Department’s surveillance of reporters was justified by the executive branch’s responsibility to protect national security secrets.
Speaking on MSNBC’s "Jansing & Co.," Van Hollen was asked if Holder should resign.
“Of course not. The attorney general has not in any way broken the law,” he said. “There are questions about whether or not these investigations were conducted in the most sensitive way … but the reality is the White House, the executive branch, all of us, have an obligation to make sure that important and sensitive national security information that can put lives at risk is not leaked, and we can do that, I think consistent with the very important First Amendment right and the rights of the press.”
On MSNBC’s "Morning Joe," Axelrod also said Holder didn’t need to resign and said the attorney general shouldn’t even apologize for the aggressive surveillance of Fox News reporter James Rosen because he “was carrying out his responsibilities.”
“I'm always uncomfortable with the notion of a reporter being named as a co-conspirator in a petition," Aelxrod said. "We should not hold the reporter responsible for doing a reporter's job. It's a matter of, this is what the law permits, and how do we go about this in the right way moving forward based on these experiences? I don't think what Eric Holder did … had criminal intent.”
Axelrod’s comments differ sharply from what he said earlier in the week, when the controversy over the Justice Department’s tactics intensified. On Tuesday, the former Obama campaign adviser said he found it troublesome that the DOJ decided to label Rosen a criminal co-conspirator in a national security leaks case.
“I do think there are real issues regarding the relationship with the media on this leak matter,” he said at the time. “The notion of naming a journalist as a co-conspirator for receiving information is something that I find very disturbing.”
“We have to figure out … how we deal with national security leaks, and how we protect the freedom of the press and the freedom of reporters to operate,” he added. “And certainly this Rosen case raises some very disturbing issues.”
In a 2009 probe, the DOJ seized Rosen’s personal emails, examined his phone records and tracked his visits to the State Department to investigate whether he was complicit in a leak of classified information.
The controversial methods were employed as the government sought to root out the source of a State Department leak surrounding a story Rosen wrote that said U.S. intelligence officials believed North Korea would likely respond to new United Nations sanctions by testing more nuclear weapons. The investigation was broadened to include Rosen, who federal authorities say may have acted as “an aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator” in the leak.
Holder met with some members of the press on Thursday and has another round of meetings scheduled for Friday to explain his department’s actions and get input about how best to deal with these matters going forward. Some media outlets rejected Holder’s invitation to meet, citing the Justice Department’s requirement that the meeting be conducted off-the-record.
“I think we should get to the bottom of all these issues,” Van Hollen continued. “But I think the attorney general is trying to bring in the press to try and get a better understanding of how we should proceed together in a way that both preserves the very important First Amendment rights of the press, but also make sure we don’t have leaks of national security information that could endanger the lives of Americans, either at home or overseas, and I would hope we would all agree that those are both important goals.”
Axelrod said critics of the Justice Department are trying to have it both ways, at first accusing the administration of allowing too many leaks, and now saying the DOJ was coming down too hard on internal staffers talking to the press.
“These leak investigations started because people were accusing people in the administration of leaking information that made the administration look good, so it’s a completely different situation,” he said. “But I think … gets to the fundamental point, which is we have find a way to balance what is an obvious concern, which is we can’t let sensitive security information into the public domain if it’s going to threaten people in the field, threaten national security operations.”
“On the other hand, we also have to balance that with the freedoms of the press which are so fundamental to who we are,” he added. “So the question is what kinds of policies do we need to enact in order to make that happen?"
The DOJ is also facing criticism for seizing phone records of Associated Press reporters in an attempt to find the source of another national security leak. Unlike the Rosen case, the AP was never a target of that investigation.
--This report was updated at 2:08 p.m.