Top Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee openly challenged Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday over his testimony two weeks ago in which he claimed to be unaware of any "potential prosecution" of the press, despite knowing about an investigation that targeted a Fox News reporter.
Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Rep. James Sensenbrenner, Jr., R-Wis., voiced "great concern" in a letter to Holder. They asked a litany of questions about the department's dealings with the press, and pointedly alleged that the Fox News case "contradicts" his testimony at a May 15 hearing.
"It is imperative that the committee, the Congress, and the American people be provided a full and accurate account of your involvement," they wrote.
The letter comes a day after the committee confirmed it was looking into Holder's testimony. Appearing before the House Judiciary Committee on May 15, Holder insisted that "the potential prosecution of the press for the disclosure of material" is not something he was involved in or knew about.
But days later, it emerged that the Justice Department obtained access to the emails of Fox News reporter James Rosen -- after filing an affidavit that accused him of being a likely criminal "co-conspirator" in the leak of sensitive material regarding North Korea. Rosen was never charged, and never prosecuted. But he was effectively accused of violating the federal Espionage Act.
"The media reports and statements issued by the Department regarding the search warrants for Mr. Rosen's emails appear to be at odds with your sworn testimony before the Committee," Goodlatte and Sensenbrenner wrote in the letter Wednesday. They did not accuse Holder of committing perjury, but noted he was "under oath."
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Among other questions, they asked Holder how he could claim to have never heard of the potential prosecution of the press. And they asked him to clarify whether he "personally approved" the search warrant request. Sensenbrenner, in an interview on Fox News, threatened to subpoena Holder to come before the committee if necessary.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, though, said on Wednesday that it appears Holder testified truthfully. He said President Obama "absolutely" has confidence in him.
The top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Michigan Rep. John Conyers, said he thinks Holder "was forthright and did not mislead the Committee."
"Certainly, there are policy disagreements as to how the First Amendment should apply to these series of leak investigations being conducted by the Justice Department, and that is and should be an area for the committee to consider. However, there is no need to turn a policy disagreement into allegations of misconduct," he said.
Holder could argue that, in fact, Rosen was never prosecuted -- and so his testimony was not misleading.
A federal law enforcement official said last week that the department had to establish probable cause in the affidavit in order to obtain the search warrant, per the terms of the Privacy Protection Act.
"Saying that there is probable cause to believe that someone has committed a crime and actually charging the person with that crime are two very different things," the official said.
Meanwhile, one of the country's most prominent liberal legal scholars called Wednesday for Holder to be "fired," joining the growing list of left-leaning pundits slamming his department's pursuit of journalists' phone and email records.
Jonathan Turley, an attorney and law professor at George Washington University, hammered Holder in a USA Today column Wednesday. He charged that Holder has "supervised a comprehensive erosion of privacy rights, press freedom and due process," aided by Democrats who looked the other way.
But in the wake of the reporter records scandal, Democrats are starting to join with Republicans in questioning whether Holder continues to be the right man to lead the Department of Justice in President Obama's second term.
Turley, in his column, referenced a recent call by the Republican National Committee chairman for Holder's resignation. "Unlike the head of the RNC, I am neither a Republican nor conservative, and I believe Holder should be fired," Turley wrote.
While Democrats largely defended Holder when his department came under fire for the botched anti-gunrunning sting Operation Fast and Furious, they've been less forgiving over the move this year to seize two months of phone records from Associated Press offices. That bombshell was compounded by the revelation that the department seized phone and email records for Fox News offices. The scandal grew as the department acknowledged Friday that Holder was involved in the court document that accused Rosen of being a likely criminal "co-conspirator," as part of the department's successful argument for obtaining a search warrant for Rosen's emails.
According to a report in The Daily Beast, aides say Holder has started to feel regret for the investigations. Under Obama's direction, he is starting a review of DOJ policies and meeting with representatives from the media.
A Justice Department official said Wednesday that Holder will hold meetings with several Washington bureau chiefs of national news organizations over the next two days.
"These meetings will begin a series of discussions that will continue to take place over the coming weeks. During these sessions, the Attorney General will engage with a diverse and representative group of news media organizations, including print, wires, radio, television, online media and news and trade associations," the official said.
Turley, in his column, scoffed at this course of action, since Holder was involved in the surveillance -- at least the surveillance involving Fox News -- in the first place. "Such an inquiry offers no reason to trust its conclusions," Turley wrote.
He described Holder as a trusted Obama "sin eater," swallowing the worst criticisms to shield the president.
"Indeed, these sins should be fatal for any attorney general," Turley wrote.