WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Monday pushed back against Republican accusations that Attorney General Eric Holder lied during a congressional appearance last month about his involvement in leak investigations that involved reporters.
Republican lawmakers have called Holder’s credibility into question by alleging that he failed to tell the truth in testimony to the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee about the Justice Department’s secret seizures of journalist records.
Holder told the committee on May 15 that he was not involved in the potential prosecution of a reporter under the 1917 Espionage Act. Reports later surfaced that he had signed off on a search warrant and a subpoena for the records of Fox News reporter James Rosen.
Adding to the furor over Holder, who has been President Barack Obama’s attorney general since the Democratic president took office in 2009, was a New York Times article on Sunday that said some in the White House had privately told associates that they wished Holder would resign.
White House officials said on Monday that Obama supports Holder, who has faced a number of controversies over the years that the administration has blamed on Republican partisan maneuvering.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough issued a statement in which he said Obama and his team “believe that the attorney general has the intellect, experience and integrity to efficiently run the Department of Justice and not get distracted by the partisans who seem more interested in launching political attacks than cooperating with him.”
In a letter to Republican lawmakers on Monday, a Justice Department official wrote that prosecutors never sought to file criminal charges against Rosen despite the FBI describing him in an affidavit as a co-conspirator in espionage.
“At no time during the pendency of this matter - before or after seeking the search warrant - have prosecutors sought approval to bring criminal charges against the reporter,” wrote Peter Kadzik, a deputy assistant attorney general, without naming Rosen.
Two Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee, Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia and James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, wrote to Holder on May 29 asking him to clarify the earlier testimony about prosecutions of reporters.
Monday’s letter from Kadzik said that because prosecutors never sought to bring charges against Rosen, Holder’s testimony “was accurate and consistent with these facts.”
Kadzik also wrote, “We are unaware of an instance when the department has prosecuted a journalist for the mere publication of classified information.”
Replying immediately to the letter, Goodlatte and Sensenbrenner said it was an inadequate response because it did not come from Holder himself.
Rosen reported in 2009 that U.S. intelligence officials believed North Korea would conduct more nuclear tests in response to U.N. sanctions.
Stephen Kim, a former analyst at the State Department suspected of being Rosen’s source, faces trial on charges he violated an anti-espionage law.
Republicans shrugged off the criticism from the White House and insisted Holder has to provide some answers.
“I think that Eric Holder has damaged his credibility, and I think he should ask himself whether he’s really effectively serving the president of the United States. Clearly there’s been some contradictory statements,” Republican U.S. Senator John McCain of Arizona told NBC’s “Today” show.
Holder has been trying to assuage concerns from the news media that Justice Department leak investigations have gone too far and are running counter to First Amendment freedom of press guarantees outlined in the U.S. Constitution.
Last week he held a private meeting with leaders of several news organizations. More such meetings are planned.
A former press secretary for Obama, Robert Gibbs, said Holder needs to do more than hold private meetings but doubted he would be leaving his job soon.
“He is going to serve as long as the president wants him to, and I think there is certainly no evidence that the president wants him to leave so I don’t expect ... (him) to go anywhere,” Gibbs told MSNBC on Monday.
However, he added, “I think it would really behoove the Department of Justice and the attorney general to come out and explain the rationales behind these investigations.”
Editing by Fred Barbash, Cynthia Osterman and Mohammad Zargham