When Senator Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) asked Attorney General Eric Holder whether the Justice Department was eavesdropping on Congress’s phone calls on Thursday, he got little of substance in response: “With all due respect, senator, I don’t think this is an appropriate setting for me to discuss [this issue].” For those unfamiliar with the normal language of testimonial obfuscation, Holder’s answer, which comes on the heels of the revelation that the NSA has been tracking Verizon phone calls for years, can only mean one of two things. Either the Justice Department really did spy on Congress, and he knows it, or — more likely — he can’t say for sure whether or not any congressional phone lines got caught in the NSA’s web. Keep an eye on this story. It could be red meat for Fox News.
Regardless of your politics, you can’t really blame Holder for sidestepping the question, especially given the month he has had. On May 13, he misled the House Judiciary Committee when he said: “With regard to the potential prosecution of the press for the disclosure of material, that is not something that I’ve ever been involved in, heard or, or would think would be a wise policy.” Given his approval of an investigation of Fox News reporter James Rosen, that statement was at least not the whole truth. Perhaps, then, Holder has learned from his missteps. He knows better than to further hobble President Obama’s already sidetracked second term with another battle over semantics.
Furthermore, Republicans in Congress haven’t given Attorney General Holder much incentive to do anything but obstruct their investigations. For as long as he has headed the Justice Department, conservatives of all stripes have dogged Holder’s every move. Michelle Malkin has called him a “crime-coddling” “corruptocrat” for dismissing voter intimidation charges against two members of the New Black Panther Party. Rick Perry called on him to resign over the Fast and Furious scandal. He even got held in contempt of Congress, a first for a cabinet member. Given his longstanding role as a punching bag for the right, one can imagine Holder is not going to make it easy for Republicans to embarrass him again.
This is not to say that stonewalling is necessarily the best political strategy for Holder or President Obama. If there is any lesson to learn from the response to the phone-tracking story, it is that the American people are fed up with Big Brother. This administration has justified everything from drone strikes to intercepting emails in the name of counter-terrorism. If, instead, Holder and the president were open with Congress and the American people about what information exactly the government had access to and how, specifically, they were using it, perhaps they could put this issue behind them and get back to facing the big issues of the day.