Washington (CNN) – Embattled Attorney General Eric Holder's long-time friend Reid Weingarten, the high-powered Washington attorney, came to his defense Thursday telling CNN that off-the-record sessions with media executives were not meant as a mea culpa.
"This is not about Eric Holder giving his defense. This is a policy discussion Eric has been instructed to do by the president. He wants people to sit down and roll up their sleeves," Weingarten says. "This is not a charm offensive. This is substantive."
Holder invited news organizations to meet with him as part of a review of the Justice Department's guidelines for leak investigations. The offer of meetings became controversial-due to the department's insistence the sessions be off-the-record– and some organizations, including CNN, Fox News, The New York Times, the Associated Press and Reuters, refused to attend the sessions citing the restriction in the midst of an ongoing news story.
Several news organizations, including the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Politico and ABC News, decided to attend the meetings on Thursday and Friday. (The Justice Department late in the day Thursday authorized invited organizations to bring their attorneys.)
Holder won't comment directly on the matter, but Weingarten spoke out on his behalf.
"We have genuine, legitimate policy issues" that need to be discussed, he said. "We need to get at these horrible leaks and protect the First Amendment."
The controversies stem from leak investigations over classified information regarding North Korea reported by Fox News Reporter James Rosen and a separate investigation about a thwarted airliner bomb plot reported by the Associated Press. As part of these probes, the DOJ obtained journalists phone records as well as, in the case of Fox News, email records. The subpoena for the AP's phone records as well as the one for the Fox News reporter's personal emails were kept secret.
News organizations and many members of Congress have criticized Holder and the Obama administration for going too far in these investigations, using overly broad criteria-and secrecy–for their searches of the records.
Holder's allies take pains to point out the difficult-and competing– missions the Attorney General is trying to meet. "It is this agonizing dilemma you have in national security cases…you're obliged to investigate them aggressively," Weingarten says. But he also tells CNN that "Eric has always been a real First Amendment guy…the question is where do you draw the line."
Holder has been asked to deliver a report with his recommendations on possible changes by next month.