A shorter version of this post appeared first at column in USA Today.
Recently, Attorney General Eric Holder appeared before the House Judiciary Committee to answer questions about the administration's sweeping surveillance of journalists with the Associated Press. In the greatest attack on the free press in decades, the Justice Department seized phone records for reporters and editors in at least three AP offices as well as its office in the House of Representatives. Holder, however, proceeded to claim absolute and blissful ignorance of the investigation, even failing to recall when or how he recused himself.
Yet, this was only the latest attack on the news media under Holder's leadership. Despite his record, he expressed surprise at the hearing that the head of the Republican National Committee had called for his resignation. After all, Holder pointed out, he did nothing. That is, of course, precisely the point. Unlike the head of the RNC, I am neither a Republican nor conservative, and I believe Holder should be fired.
The 'sin eater'
Holder's refusal to accept responsibility for the AP investigation was something of a change for the political insider. His value to President Obama has been his absolute loyalty. Holder is what we call a "sin eater" inside the Beltway -- high-ranking associates who shield presidents from responsibility for their actions. Richard Nixon had H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. Ronald Reagan had Oliver North and Robert "Bud" McFarlane. George W. Bush had the ultimate sin eater: Dick Cheney, who seemed to have an insatiable appetite for sins to eat.
This role can be traced to 18th century Europe, when families would use a sin eater to clean the moral record of a dying person by eating bread from the person's chest and drinking ale passed over his body. Back then, the ritual's power was confined to removing minor sins.
For Obama, there has been no better sin eater than Holder. When the president promised CIA employees early in his first term that they would not be investigated for torture, it was the attorney general who shielded officials from prosecution. When the Obama administration decided it would expand secret and warrantless surveillance, it was Holder who justified it. When the president wanted the authority to kill any American he deemed a threat without charge or trial, it was Holder who went public to announce the "kill list" policy.
Last week, the Justice Department confirmed that it was Holder who personally approved the equally abusive search of Fox News correspondent James Rosen's e-mail and phone records in another story involving leaked classified information. In the 2010 application for a secret warrant, the Obama administration named Rosen as "an aider and abettor and/or co-conspirator" to the leaking of classified materials. The Justice Department even investigated Rosen's parents' telephone number, and Holder was there to justify every attack on the news media.
Yet, at this month's hearing, the attorney general had had his fill. Accordingly, Holder adopted an embarrassing mantra of "I have no knowledge" and "I had no involvement" throughout the questioning. When he was not reciting the equivalent to his name, rank and serial number, he was implicating his aide, Deputy Attorney General James Cole. Cole, it appears, is Holder's sin eater. Holder was so busy denying responsibility for today's scandals, he began denying known facts about older scandals. For example, Holder was asked about an earlier scandal in his administration in the handling of the "Fast and Furious" program where guns were allowed to be sold to criminal gangs. Holder insisted that Ronald C. Machen Jr., the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, was not told to decline the prosecution of Holder for contempt of Congress after refusing to turn over key documents and that "[Machen] made the determination about what he was going to do on his own." However, Holder's deputy, Cole, wrote to Machen to inform him (before the contempt citation even reached his office) that Main Justice "has determined that the Attorney General's response to the subpoena . . . does not constitute a crime."
In the end, Holder was the best witness against his continuing in office. His insistence that he did nothing was a telling moment. The attorney general has done little in his tenure to protect civil liberties or the free press. Rather, Holder has supervised a comprehensive erosion of privacy rights, press freedom and due process. This ignoble legacy was made possible by Democrats who would look at their shoes whenever the Obama administration was accused of constitutional abuses.
On Thursday, Obama responded to the outcry over the AP and Fox scandals by calling for an investigation by ... you guessed it ... Eric Holder. He ordered Holder to meet with news media representatives to hear their "concerns" and report back to him. He sent his old sin eater for a confab with the very targets of the abusive surveillance. Such an inquiry offers no reason to trust its conclusions.
The feeble response was the ultimate proof that these are Obama's sins despite his effort to feign ignorance. It did not matter that Holder is the sin eater who has lost his stomach or that such mortal sins are not so easily digested. Indeed, these sins should be fatal for any attorney general.