Commentary Magazine


Holder’s Divide and Conquer Strategy

Attorney General Eric Holder’s press charm offensive began earlier this week with an interview in the Daily Beast in which he expressed regrets for the Justice Department’s spying on journalists. It escalated yesterday with the first of a series of meetings with publication executives and bureau chiefs where he claimed the DOJ would rethink its guidelines for dealing with journalists who have been leaked government information.

But while these efforts may seem like futile gestures that won’t get Holder off the hook, they are actually a clever tactic. Those who attend these meetings need to be conscious that what is going on is not so much an attempt to mend fences with the media but an effort to divide and conquer the press. The attorney general and the president know that if they can tap into the liberal mainstream media’s inherent sympathy for Obama and antipathy for his critics, they can divert attention from the current spate of scandals. The refusal of many liberal pundits–who had joined in the universal condemnation of the government’s spying on the Associated Press and Fox News reporter James Rosen–to connect the dots when it comes to Holder’s lies about the issue shows that there is good reason to believe the administration can succeed in avoiding being held accountable for their actions. Getting journalists to make nice with Holder rather than hold his feet to the fire is the first step toward making this a reality.

Though most of those invited to the meetings begged off because holding an off-the-record talk with the person at the center of this scandal was inappropriate, those who did show up dished most of the details. As Politico, whose editor-in-chief John Harris was there, reported, the talk centered on non-controversial suggestions about seeking a better “balance” between protecting national security and respecting the First Amendment rights of journalists.

That’s all well and good but what the press needs to be doing with General Holder is not holding his hand and pledging mutual coexistence. He needs to be pressed on why he lied to Congress on May 15 about knowing nothing about potential prosecutions of journalists when he had already signed off on documents accusing Rosen of being a “co-conspirator” in a crime for doing his job. Holder and his boss President Obama also need to explain how it is the same person that was responsible for these outrageous attacks on press freedoms can possibly be trusted to stop such abuses in the future.

The point is we don’t really need a redrawing of guidelines about national security and the press. What we need is an attorney general who respects the Constitution.

No one disputes that the government has a duty to protect genuine secrets or that the press should not publish or broadcast material that would endanger lives or compromise America’s ability to defend itself. But despite the pious proclamations on these subjects emanating from those seeking to rationalize the indefensible treatment of the AP and Rosen, what’s happened the past four and half years can’t really be excused in that manner.

Holder’s jihad against the press isn’t really about leaks. Leaking is, after all, something the Obama White House has turned into an art form. The series of flattering stories about Obama’s prowess as a national security leader that wound up on the front page of the Sunday New York Times last year prior to his re-election were all anonymously sourced from administration figures. But we have yet to hear of anyone in the White House or their little friends in the media getting the James Rosen treatment.

This administration has prosecuted more people for speaking about government secrets than all of its predecessors combined. What Holder has done is to create an atmosphere of intimidation aimed at preventing people from talking about government operations with the press, not making it harder for officials to puff the president even if, as with the case with last year’s stories in the Times, they were based on highly secret national security matters.

What is needed at DOJ is a change of leadership, not better communication skills. Anyone in the media, especially those who troop to Holder’s office to make nice with him this week, needs to keep that in mind. Liberal journalists who protect this president and his attorney general rather than defending the principles of a free press are falling prey to a divide and conquer strategy aimed at isolating the president’s critics, not a reevaluation of a flawed policy.

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