WH defends Holder's off-the-record meetings with media

Attorney General Eric Holder Getty Images

In an effort to tamp down the continued furor over the Justice Department's surveillance of journalists as part of a leak investigation, Attorney General Eric Holder was scheduled to meet this week with the Washington bureau chiefs of major news organizations to chart a path forward for leak probes that safeguards the freedom of the press while protecting American national security.

The administration framed the meetings as a gesture of goodwill - an opportunity for the Justice Department to hear and address the grievances of media organizations that have accused the department of overreaching and intimidating the press in their zeal to investigate leaks of classified information.

But the meetings came with preconditions: they were to be off the record, and conducted in the absence of legal counsel. As a result, several major news organizations, including CBS News, declined the invitation.

"CBS News does not plan to participate in the off-the-record meeting with Attorney General Eric Holder," explained CBS News Senior Vice President for Communications Sonya McNair. "We would be willing to consider an on-the-record discussion."

Now, the White House is pushing back against suggestions that the meeting - a discussion about press freedom that was required to be off the record - was a hypocritical offer.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest, during a press gaggle on Air Force One on Thursday, was asked whether he thought the meetings' preconditions were "hypocritical," in light of the First Amendment issues due to be addressed.

"No, I don't actually see that," he replied.

"It's not uncommon for the Department of Justice, and, frankly, other administration agencies, to consult with stakeholders...as we're conducting policy reviews and making policy decisions," Earnest explained. "We are genuinely interested in the input, the opinion, the advice, the expertise of leaders of prominent media organizations, and we are hopeful and optimistic that we are going to find a way to get their input in this process."

"I think most people would understand that there are two competing interests that need to be balanced here, in terms of protecting national security secrets but also protecting the First Amendment rights of journalists," he added. "And there's no reason that the Attorney General shouldn't be able to engage in a constructive discussion with journalists about this."

The controversy that began earlier in May with the news that the Justice Department had subpoenaed a broad patchwork of Associated Press phone records as part of a leak probe was kicked into high gear by the subsequent revelation that the department had also seized the emails and phone records of Fox News correspondent James Rosen.

While Holder recused himself from the Associated Press probe, it's been reported that he personally signed off on the search warrant for Rosen's records, which labeled the correspondent a "criminal co-conspirator" and suggested that he may have violated federal law.

Holder has said he is "not satisfied" with the Justice Department's guidelines involving the news media in criminal investigations, but possible changes to those guidelines have not yet emerged.

In addition to CBS News, major news organizations declining the invitation to meet with Holder include the New York Times, the Associated Press, CNN, and Fox News. Politico and the Washington Post said they would attend their scheduled meeting Thursday.

  • Jake Miller

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