It barely took two weeks. The recent scandal, in which it was revealed that reporter James Rosen was named by the government as a potential co-conspirator in espionage for committing acts of journalism, should have served as an indictment of the prevailing government attitude towards information and leaks. However, the incident that some experts thought could be a "game-changer" has already fallen comfortably into the old patterns of partisan politicking.
GOP lawmakers this week pressed Attorney General Eric Holder to respond to criticisms that he lied to Congress about his knowledge of the Rosen surveillance. Holder had told the House judicial committee that he was not involved in the potential prosecution of a reporter under the Espionage Act. Reports later surfaced that Holder had personally signed off on a search warrant and a subpoena for an extensive number of Rosen's records.
However, the Obama administration has pushed back on Republican condemnations of Holder, rejecting claims that he lied to Congress. The Guardian reported that Peter Kadzik, a deputy assistant attorney general, wrote to Republican lawmakers: "At no time … before or after seeking the search warrant have prosecutors sought approval to bring criminal charges against the reporter."
Meanwhile, Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, issued a statement saying that Obama and his team "believe that the attorney general has the intellect, experience and integrity to efficiently run the justice department and not get distracted by the partisans who seem more interested in launching political attacks than co-operating with him."
The DOJ move here is nifty and disconcerting. It is entirely feasible that there was never any intention of prosecuting Rosen in the leaks investigation. But this misses the point. It remains the case that in order to access expansive records on the journalist, the government framed Rosen as a potential co-conspirator under Espionage Act determinations. As I noted last month on the Rosen scandal:
Whether there was ever any intention of prosecuting Rosen, or whether the “co-conspirator” claim was simply a means to get a search warrant for the reporter’s emails, is unknown. Both scenarios are troubling. In either scenario too, we have a government agency framing acts of journalism as potential crimes worthy of investigation and intensive surveillance.
This week's descent into party-political sparring should not distract from what the Fox News spying scandal actually reveals about the government's extensive war on leaks.