Attorney General Eric Holder will meet with Washington news bureau chiefs this week to explain the Justice Department's secret surveillance of journalists, as questions mounted about whether he told the full truth about his own role in that spying.
The Justice Department this week is setting up an off-the-record meeting with news organizations to explain its policies for investigating journalists after top department officials acknowledged they secretly monitored Associated Press journalists and Fox News reporter James Rosen.
Holder acknowledges approving the monitoring of Rosen, including the reporter's private phone and email logs, but insists he recused himself from the AP case. It's not unusual for the attorney general to recuse himself from a case, but Holder said he failed to put the recusal in writing and that he can't remember exactly when he put his assistant in charge of the matter. That explanation has lawmakers and former Justice Department officials scratching their heads.
"The idea that Eric Holder recused himself without putting it in writing is laughable," a high-ranking Justice official under former President George W. Bush told The Washington Examiner. "I don't believe him. It just doesn't make any sense."
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., also want Holder to explain whether the Justice Department intended to prosecute Rosen under the Espionage Act, as it stipulated in the search warrants that labeled Rosen a "co-conspirator." If the department planned to prosecute Rosen, that would contradict Holder's earlier testimony, the lawmakers said.
Holder said he recused himself from the AP case because the FBI had interviewed him as part of the original leak investigation. But the FBI also had talked with James Cole, the man Holder put in charge of the AP probe.
Justice Department guidelines require that in seeking a recusal, an attorney general put "this determination in writing, identify the facts considered by the attorney general, and set forth the reasons for the recusal."
Holder put his recusals in writing in at least three other cases prior to the AP probe, spelling out that he was transferring his authority to an outside prosecutor in cases involving the John Adams Society and the seizures of detainee photographs by the Pentagon.
"Guidelines are very clear on recusals," said another Justice Department veteran. "And Holder seemed to know the rules in earlier cases. Why he would all of the sudden forget them in such a high-profile investigation is at best a mystery and deals a major blow to his credibility."
Still, White House press secretary Jay Carney on Wednesday defended Holder, saying he was doing a "good job" and gave truthful testimony on Capitol Hill. Carney accused reporters of "conflating a subpoena with prosecution." Amid the heightened criticism, the Justice Department is bringing on Brian Fallon, a veteran spokesman for Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. to handle press inquiries.
Obama tasked Holder with reviewing Justice Department rules for investigating reporters, an assignment that critics dismissed as inconsequential since the nation's top lawyer would be reporting on his own policies.