Holder: Worst AG in US history for journalism?

By Christopher B. Daly

There are, of course, many ways to evaluate the performance of Eric Holder as the Attorney General of the United States. Since he announced his intention to retire, many voices have attempted to determine his legacy. I want to focus on his treatment of journalists, which may be the most hostile in the history of the country.

His most egregious and unconstitutional offense has been to investigate and prosecute journalists for doing their jobs — which, at its most vital, entails gathering and sharing information about the actions of our government. When that news-gathering has involved discovering information that the government prefers to keep secret, Holder has been ruthless — far more agressive, for example, than he was in prosecuting those lenders and speculators who crashed the U.S. economy in 2008.

It’s not just a campaign against “leakers” such as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. What has really marked Holder’s approach is his determination to go after the journalists who get secrets from government sources. Among his biggest targets has been the New York Times (no accident, of course, because the Times is a leader in investigating government secrets). With considerable restraint, the Times made these observations today:

But Mr. Holder has continued Mr. Kennedy’s work in another way, one he is less likely to embrace but is no less part of his legacy. Like Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Holder has frustrated and confounded even his staunchest allies for his views on civil liberties.

Mr. Holder approved of the National Security Agency’s authority to sweep up millions of phone records of Americans accused of no crime. He subpoenaed journalists and led a crackdown on their sources. He defended the F.B.I.’s right to track people’s cars without warrants and the president’s right to kill an American who had joined Al Qaeda.

And later:

Mr. Holder’s Justice Department started more investigations than any of his predecessors into government officials who disclosed information to reporters. He subpoenaed journalists’ emails and phone records, and demanded their testimony. The New York Times reporter James Risen, who has refused to reveal his sources about information on Iran, remains under subpoena.

Mr. Holder acknowledged in the interview that those efforts went too far at times and pointed to new rules limiting investigations involving journalists. . .

To put all this in historical perspective, it might be worth noting that Holder is not the only attorney general in U.S. history

Attorney General Charles Lee, 1795-1801

AG  Charles Lee, 1795-1801

to have prosecuted journalists. One notable enemy of journalists was the third AG — the rarely remembered Charles Lee of Virginia, who served under Federalist president John Adams and enforced the blatantly unconstitutional provisions of the Sedition Act of 1798, which made it a crime to publish certain kinds of criticism of the government or its officials. (When the Jefferson administration came into power in March of 1801, Lee was promptly replaced by Levi Lincoln Sr. of Massachusetts, and the Sedition Act was mercifully allowed to expire.)

Then there was Alexander Mitchell Palmer, who occupied the office during the late years of the Wilson administration. He is most notorious for carrying out the “Palmer raids” on suspected radicals, but he

AG Palmer

AG Palmer

also prosecuted several high-profile cases under the Sedition Act of 1918 to attempt to silence critics of U.S. involvement in World War I.

Ultimately, I suppose, it is worth remembering that all attorneys general are nominated by the president, and they serve at his (or her) pleasure. So, attorneys general are only as good as the president allows — or requires — them to be.

2 Comments

Filed under Eric Holder, Journalism, journalism history

2 responses to “Holder: Worst AG in US history for journalism?

  1. David

    If Daniel Ellsberg read this, he would typing furiously–“Mitchell Palmer? How about John Mitchell who tried to put me in jail for leaking the Pentagon Papers, threatened that Kate Graham would get ‘her tit caught in a wringer’ for covering Watergate and wound up in prison? Do you think Holder had burglars break into Manning’s psychiatrist’s office the way Mitchell did to me?”

    The irony of Holder’s antimedia actions is that much of the press was reluctant for PC reasons to oppose his nomination for AG even though he violated DOJ rules to help pardon Marc Rich in an effort to become Al Gore’s AG.

    Sadly, you could write a long book about how AG misdeeds and the failure of journalists to cover them–Harding’s AG was forced out for corruption; Eisenhower’s AG enjoyed McCarthy’s smears of Democrats; RFK and Ramsey Clark became media darlings despite wiretapping Martin Luther King; Janet Reno caused the deaths at Waco on the clearly false claim that children were endangered but was lionized for as the first woman AG.

    Of course, not 1 journalist in 10,000 who has written about either J. Edgar Hoover or Earl Warren has mentioned which of them championed the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans (as AG of California) and who opposed it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s