Just days after Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosensteinand another federal prosecutor were appointed to look into national security leaks, a group of Republican senators called for their ouster, claiming the men can't be trusted to investigate the Obama administration because they work for it.
"A lot of us believe if there was ever a need for an outside special counsel, it is now," South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said during a Judiciary Committee hearing last week, raising questions about the prosecutors' objectivity.
That might be a first for Rosenstein. The Republican prosecutor has won bipartisan support throughout his 22-year career, cultivating a reputation as a no-nonsense government lawyer who thrives in heavily Democratic Maryland. But this leak case — political at its core — is likely to challenge the perception of his neutrality like never before.
U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. tapped Rosenstein, along with D.C. U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr., earlier this month to direct separate criminal investigations into intelligence leaks that some claim were orchestrated to make President Barack Obama — who's roundly condemned such disclosures — look good in an election year.
The Associated Press recently published an article detailing efforts to thwart an al-Qaidabomb plot in the Arabian Peninsula. And reports in The New York Times outlined President Barack Obama's "kill list" strategy in fighting the war on terror and the use of cyber-attacks against Iran.
Little has been said about the scope of the inquiries or the expectations being placed on the U.S. attorneys. But those who know Rosenstein, 47, claim he's a solid selection for the job. He declined to be interviewed for this article.
"This sounds so hammy, but I think he's so deeply decent and honorable and cares so much about being honorable that I don't think [the politics] will affect his actions in any way," said Philip B. Heymann, a former deputy attorney general under Bill Clinton who hired Rosenstein to act as counsel in 1993. "I just have complete faith that he will try his damnedest to call it" as it is.
Rosenstein is one of five George W. Bushadministration holdovers — out of 93 U.S. attorneys — still in position under Obama, according to Main Justice, which covers insider news from the Department of Justice. He was chosen for the position in 2005, after a controversial predecessor resigned under pressure.
He has been widely praised ever since, particularly by Maryland's Democratic officials, despite his membership in the conservative Federalist Society at Harvard Law School.
The one time his career was apparently held up because of partisan politics was because both sides of the aisle said they wanted him. Bush nominated him to be a federal appeals court judge in 2007, but Maryland's Democratic senators blocked the recommendation, claiming Rosenstein was doing a "good job" as the state's U.S. attorney and they wanted him to stay there.
Still, even straight shooting is a risk in this situation, said Heymann, who's also a Harvard law professor and taught Rosenstein decades ago. If he finds nothing criminal, Rosenstein could be vilified by the right, and if he finds high-level wrongdoing, it could upset the left.
"People won't give him too much credit for just being absolutely straight," Heymann said. "In other words, he'll take a beating if he [ever] wants to be confirmed as a judge or something. It may cost him."
Rosenstein grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, graduating summa cum laude with an economics degree from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School in 1986, then cum laude with a juris doctorate from Harvard Law three years later.
He went on to clerk for U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg in D.C. for a year and then his star took off, with a rapid succession of respected positions. He became a trial attorney within the Justice Department's public integrity section in 1990, and Heymann selected him from a pool of hundreds to serve in the deputy attorney general's office in 1993.
"I would trust him with anything," said Heymann, who's worked for Democratic administrations, but considers himself an independent.
Rosenstein next served as special assistant within the DOJ's criminal division for two years, before accepting a role as an associate independent counsel under Kenneth W. Starr, who oversaw the so-called Whitewater investigation into suspicious real estate dealings involving Bill and Hillary Clinton. Rosenstein left for Maryland before the examination turned toward Monica Lewinsky's relationship with the president.
He became an assistant U.S. attorney in the state's Greenbelt office from 1997 to 2001, prosecuting cases that ranged from mail fraud to murder. That's when federal prosecutor Bonnie S. Greenberg, who's currently on assignment at a justice department training center in South Carolina, got to know him best.
They'd met nearly a decade earlier, through Rosenstein's wife-to-be, but they became friends while they were both Maryland assistants, said Greenberg, who spoke protectively of her colleague.
"He's got sound judgment. He is fair and impartial and strives to do the right thing," she said. "He does not view himself as Republican or Democrat, he views himself as the U.S. attorney."