Attorney General Eric Holder, who has been the target of right-wing ire for much of his tenure, defended his handling of the Justice Department before members of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday.
"I have not done a perfect job," Holder said in response to a question from Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama. "I've done a good job, but I'm always trying to do better." Holder pledged to create new guidelines to protect reporters in response to news that the Justice Department scoured Associated Press records and named a Fox reporter a "co-conspirator" in a leak investigation.
"The Department has not prosecuted—and as long as I have the privilege of serving as Attorney General of the United States, will not prosecute—any reporter for doing his or her job," Holder said.
Given that House Republicans say they might accuse the Attorney General of perjury in his previous testimony on the press leaks stories, he clearly prepared his opening remarks to focus on the press issues. But the topic barely came up, giving way instead to questions about Wednesday's revelation that the National Security Agency had gathered phone records for millions of Americans.
While Holder has faced intense attacks almost continuously throughout his tenure, until this year they mostly split along partisan lines, making it easier for supporters to dismiss them as politically motivated smears. The AP and NSA stories are scrambling that dynamic.
Underscoring the new environment, many of the administration's biggest defenders regarding the NSA surveillance on Thursday were Republicans and some of its biggest critics were Democrats. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, hardly a friend of the administration on most national security issues, strongly backed the NSA program while questioning Holder.
"You keep up what you're doing," Graham said. He warned that the consequences of derailing the program "would be catastrophic."
But Holder faced tougher questions from Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, who wanted to know if the NSA collected information on members of Congress that a future administration could use as "unique leverage" over the legislature. Holder responded that a public hearing was not an "appropriate" forum to discuss the NSA story. Appropriations chairwoman, Democrat Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, suggested a classified meeting with the entire Senate. But she sounded a note of annoyance when Holder said that lawmakers had already been "fully briefed" on the relevant issues.
"This 'fully briefed' is something that drives us up the wall," Mikulski said, adding that intelligence was often shared with only a handful of House and Senate leaders. She also made clear that the recent string of data secretly collected by the government was starting to wear on her. She recalled reading coverage of the NSA surveillance and thinking: "Oh God, not one more thing."
But California's Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, staunchly defended Holder's record and the NSA program that collects data many Americans had thought was private.
"I believe in your integrity, I believe that you are a good Attorney General," Feinstein said. "I think you've had undue problems that it's hard to anticipate. I think you have responded the best as you possibly could."
Outside the hearing, the NSA news generated more direct criticism from some prominent Democrats. Sen. Mark Udall, Democrat of Colorado who has long raised concerns about the scope of the nation's intelligence programs, said that "this sort of wide-scale surveillance should concern all of us and is the kind of government overreach I’ve said Americans would find shocking."
Former Vice President Al Gore also decried the program on Twitter, writing: "Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?"
For Holder, who neither authorized the seizure of AP's phone records or was involved in the NSA program, the revelations have nonetheless taken a toll, and he is often left alone to answer for those actions.
Shelby asked Holder whether there was a "tipping point" he had in mind in determining whether he could still perform his job effectively amid "recent controversies."
"The tipping point might be fatigue," Holder said. "You get to a point where you just get tired."
Nonetheless, Holder said that he planned to remain Attorney General until he had accomplished a series of goals he had set for the department, echoing similar comments he made to NBC News' Pete Williams on Wednesday.