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Article posted: 5/30/2013 2:30 PM

Mr. President, meet Mr. Holder

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By Michael Gerson

So, Attorney General Eric Holder approved a search warrant targeting Fox News' James Rosen for the crime of journalism with malice aforethought. Then the Justice Department shopped around for a judge who would keep the surveillance of professional and private emails secret. Then the department fought the public disclosure of the warrant since it wanted the flexibility to continue the investigation "for many years." Then, according to Daniel Klaidman of The Daily Beast, Holder read the details of this operation in The Washington Post over breakfast and the reality began to "fully sink in." "Holder knew that Justice would be besieged by the twin leak probes," says Klaidman, "but, according to aides, he was also beginning to feel a creeping sense of personal remorse."

Some men find their moral bearings in the quiet of reflection; others in the crucible of suffering; still others on the front page of a newspaper.

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According to Klaidman's article, Justice Department officials attribute Holder's actions to the "withering pressure to investigate leaks from both within the intelligence community and the Congress." So the weather vane complains about the wind. Apparently the attorney general's convictions about the First Amendment could not survive a pelting hail of interdepartmental memos.

The article cites sources close to Holder as saying he was "particularly stung by the leak controversy, in large part because his department's -- and his own -- actions are at odds with his image of himself as a pragmatic lawyer with liberal instincts and a well-honed sense of balance." Whatever Holder may see in his mirror each morning, this likeness is not visible to the rest of us.

His balance did not seem particularly sharp when he reopened the investigation of CIA interrogators who had been already cleared by career prosecutors. That action was repudiated by seven former CIA directors and went nowhere. Or when he pushed for a civilian trial in Manhattan for Khalid Sheik Mohammed and other 9/11 conspirators. Under Holder's direction, that process collapsed and the White House eventually assumed direct control.

Holder is often a liberal. But his tenure will not be remembered for its ideological bent. At times he has displayed the legal sensibilities of a flower child. At other points, he has provided the legal justification for President Obama's expanded drone war or pursued the broadest attack on press freedom in decades. No, Holder's signature is not ideology; it is incompetence. He has spent five years learning from mistakes. It has been an expensive education.

Done in the right spirit, incompetence can appear like sincerity. Don't we all, on occasion, make the error of seizing the personal emails of journalists? But Holder adds some less attractive traits. He is a stranger to candor. On May 15, he told the House Judiciary Committee that he had no knowledge about "potential prosecution of the press for the disclosure of material." This may be technically true. Rosen was targeted for conspiring to solicit classified material, not for the possibility he might expose it. We have an attorney general who perhaps technically avoided deceiving Congress. A legal achievement, of sorts. But hardly the highest standard of truthfulness.

And Holder's shifting judgments are defended with unwavering self-righteousness. He said critics who questioned his Manhattan terror trials had chosen to "cower" and lacked "confidence in the American system of justice." At a recent hearing, Holder accused Rep. Darrell Issa of "unacceptable" conduct -- hours before news broke of Holder's unacceptable conduct in the Rosen matter.

Holder has one particular, highly developed skill: a talent for loyalty. And this is designed to please an audience of one. But Obama's continued trust in his besieged attorney general has radiating effects. The review of Justice Department abuses relating to the press is being conducted by ... Holder. A special counsel in this case would be appointed by ... Holder. The FBI probe of the IRS scandal was ordered by ... Holder. In all these cases, the restoration of public trust depends on an attorney general worthy of public trust.

During his recent Naval Academy commencement address, Obama said: "It's no secret that in recent decades many Americans have lost confidence in many of the institutions that help shape our society and our democracy. But I suggest to you today that institutions do not fail in a vacuum. Institutions are made up of people, individuals. And we've seen how the actions of a few can undermine the integrity of those institutions."

Mr. President, meet your attorney general.

Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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