Senate Committee Vents Frustration on Justice Official

The Senate Judiciary Committee pummeled a Justice Department official Tuesday at a hearing about the federal interest in the papers of the late journalist Jack Anderson. But members of the committee ended up using the forum to accuse the executive branch of overreaching its powers, and cutting into those of Congress.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The Senate Judiciary Committee did hear, yesterday, from the chief of staff for the Justice Department's Criminal Division. He was there to talk about the Justice Department's investigation into journalists who report on classified information. As NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, he did not receive a warm reception.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

At times, the hearing room felt more like a gladiator's arena than a Senate committee meeting. None of the senators in attendance seemed very sympathetic to the witness, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Matthew Friedrich. Even Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa complained that Friedrich wasn't answering questions.

Senator CHARLES GRASSLEY (Republican, Iowa): I would think that that department would send somebody here to testify that could answer our questions if they got any respect for this committee whatsoever.

SHAPIRO: And that's when the swords came out. Democratic Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy:

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): I think that answers the question; they don't have any respect for this committee. Why, in heavens name, were you sent up here?

SHAPIRO: Friedrich remained calm.

Mr. MATTHEW FRIEDRICH (Chief of Staff and Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Department of Justice): Senator, I can tell you my understanding that, on a staff-to-staff level as between our legislative staff and the staff for the chairman, that it was made clear before I came up here that I would not be able to talk about the NSA...

Sen. LEAHY: Well, you know, but this is what happens, no matter what, for the Department of Justice or the FBI or anything else. Any time you ask anything where there might have been a screw-up by this administration - I don't think I can answer that. I mean, there is this arrogance in this administration against any kind of oversight.

SHAPIRO: Leahy tried a different line of questioning. He asked why the FBI tried to search the papers of the late investigative reporter, Jack Anderson. Was there any truth to the rumor that it was because they contained information about J. Edgar Hoover's personal life?

Mr. FRIEDRICH: Senator, again, with respect to the Anderson matter, I'm not able to comment on that matter at all.

Sen. LEAHY: So what you're doing - you're sent up here to be a punching bag; is that it?

Mr. FRIEDRICH: Senator, again, uh, is, uh...

Sen. LEAHY: I know you can't answer that. I realize it. It's like the attorney general. There's no - is there any questions you guys are allowed to answer other than your title, time of day? I mean, is this sort of like a prisoner of war kind of thing?

SHAPIRO: Leahy later back-peddled on the punching bag comment. The Committee Chairman, Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, was not much more helpful to the witness. He began by describing the Justice Department's investigation of reporters as one aspect of expanding executive authority, which we've seen in recent times.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): With the warrantless national surveillance, with the signing statements where the president chooses which parts of legislation he likes and which parts he does not like, with the search and seizure on Capitol Hill...

SHAPIRO: That's a reference to the FBI's search of Congressman William Jefferson's office in a bribery probe.

On the subject of investigating journalists, Friedrich explained that the Justice Department is not out to get the press.

Mr. FRIEDRICH: The strong preference of the department is to work with the press, not to run storage-containing classified information, as opposed to other alternatives. The attorney general has made consistently clear that he believes that our country's national security interests and First Amendment interests are not mutually exclusive, and can both be accommodated.

SHAPIRO: But that didn't satisfy Chairman Specter. He said legislation might be necessary to prevent the Justice Department from using espionage laws to prosecute journalists. And he said he's not surprised that the Justice Department disagrees with him.

Sen. SPECTER: The administration doesn't think legislation is necessary to deal with unauthorized surveillance. Every time the Congress has searched some over (unintelligible) authority, the administration pulls back.

SHAPIRO: Reporter Jack Anderson's widow, Olivia Anderson, was in the audience of the hearing. When asked what her late husband would make of the proceedings, she said, he's probably enjoying this.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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