Holder On The Hot Seat

Lawmakers take their best shots at the embattled Attorney General in today's House Judiciary Committee hearing.

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Yuri Gripas / REUTERS

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is sworn-in before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on "Oversight of the United States Department of Justice" on Capitol Hill in Washington May 15, 2013.

Attorney General Eric Holder arrived on Capitol Hill Wednesday afternoon for a flaying from lawmakers, who grilled him about an array of topics including the Department of Justice’s seizure of Associated Press phone records.

Holder appeared before the House Judiciary Committee days after the AP reported that the phone calls of as many as 100 journalists were seized to determine the source of a story revealing classified details about a counterterrorism operation in Yemen last year. Holder was questioned on potential intelligence failures leading up to the Boston bombing and revelations that the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative groups for additional reviews of their tax-exempt status. In a wide-ranging press conference Tuesday, Holder told reporters that he has ordered the Federal Bureau of Investigation to open a criminal probe into the matter.

“Just two days ago it was revealed that the Justice Department obtained telephone records for more than 20 Associated Press reporters and editors over a two-month period,” committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) said in his opening remarks. ” These requests appear to be very broad and intersect important First Amendment protections.  Any abridgement of the First Amendment right to the freedom of the press is very concerning, and members of the Committee want to hear an explanation from you today.”

In his prepared testimony (see below), Holder skated clear of each of the issues he was called to address, focusing on broad departmental successes.

Congressional hearings are as much a forum for politicians to vent their outrage as they are a tool for gleaning usable information. It is unclear whether lawmakers will be able to wring fresh details on those topics just 24 hours after Holder faced the press. If not, lawmakers will settle for the chance to score a favorable headline or a cable-ready sound bite by slamming the embattled attorney general.

House Republican Darrell Issa of California was particularly tough on Holder, appearing to suggest he had political motive in failing to provide the private emails of Obama Labor Department nominee Tom Perez. When Issa cut him off, Holder took exception, spurring a testy exchange in which the attorney general snapped: “The way you conduct yourself as a member of Congress is unacceptable and shameful.”

On multiple occasions, Holder repeated to the committee that he recused himself from the AP case, saying he did not know about any communications between the AP and the Justice Departments before the records were seized. “I’m simply not a part of the case,” he explained to lawmakers multiple times. He told members of the panel that his deputy, James Cole, who signed off on the AP subpoena.

Holder said the department’s investigation of why IRS officials singled out conservative nonprofit groups for special scrutiny would be national in scope, but offered scant details of who the culprits were or how extensive the problems ran. Asked whether the mistakes were limited to low-level IRS employees in Cincinnati, Holder demurred. “I simply don’t know at this stage. We have only begun our investigation and I think it will take us time to determine who was involved,” he said. “Some inquiry” into whether organizations registering as 501 (c)(4) social-welfare groups should be eligible for tax-exempt status is “appropriate,” he added, while noting those inquiries should be apolitical. During the hearing, CNN reported that the IRS has identified two “rogue” employees in the agency’s Cincinnati office as being principally responsible.

Minutes before Holder’s testimony, a White House official confirmed that Obama aide Ed Pagano spoke to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) about reintroducing the so-called media shield law, that languished in the Senate after passing the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2009. First reported by The New York Times, the bill would provide new protections to media organizations from government investigations, including the ability to challenge subpoenas before they are executed. Obama endorsed an earlier version of the bill while still in the Senate.

“This kind of law would balance national security needs against the public’s right to the free flow of information,” Schumer said in a statement. “At minimum, our bill would have ensured a fairer, more deliberate process in this case.”

Holder’s conflict-free testimony, as prepared for delivery:

Good morning, Chairman Goodlatte; Ranking Member Conyers.  I appreciate this opportunity to appear before you today to discuss the Justice Department’s recent achievements and to provide an overview of our top priorities.

Particularly in recent years, the Department has taken critical steps to prevent and combat violent crime, to confront national security threats, to ensure the civil rights of everyone in this country, and to safeguard the most vulnerable members of our society.  Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of my colleagues – the nearly 116,000 dedicated men and women who serve in Justice Department offices around the world – I’m pleased to report that we’ve established a remarkable record of progress in expanding our nation’s founding promise of equal justice under law, and ensuring the safety and security of our citizens.

The need to continue these efforts – and to remain vigilant against a range of evolving threats – was brought into sharp focus last month, in the most shocking of ways, when a horrific terrorist attack in Boston left three innocent people dead and hundreds injured.  In the days that followed– thanks to the valor of state and local police, the dedication of federal law enforcement and intelligence officials, and the cooperation of members of the public – those suspected of carrying out this terrorist act were identified.  One suspect died following a shootout with police and the other has been brought into custody and charged in federal court with using a weapon of mass destruction.  Three others have been charged in connection with the investigation of this case, which is active and ongoing.

As we continue working to achieve justice on behalf of our fellow citizens and brave law enforcement officers who were injured or killed in connection with these tragic events – and to hold accountable, to the fullest extent of the law, all who were responsible for this heinous attack – I want to assure you that my colleagues and I are also committed to strengthening our broader national security efforts.  Over the past four years, we’ve identified, investigated, and disrupted multiple potential plots involving foreign terrorist organizations as well as homegrown extremists.  We’ve secured convictions – and tough sentences – against numerous individuals for terrorism-related offenses.  We’ve utilized essential intelligence-gathering and surveillance capabilities in a manner that’s consistent with the rule of law, and with our most treasured values.

Beyond this work, my colleagues and I are enhancing our focus on a variety of emerging threats and persistent challenges – from drug trafficking and transnational organized crime, to cyber-threats and human trafficking.  We’re moving to ensure robust enforcement of antitrust laws, to combat tax fraud schemes, and to safeguard the environment.  We’re building on the significant progress that’s been made in identifying and thwarting financial and health care-related fraud crimes.  For example, in FY 2012, our fraud detection and enforcement efforts resulted in the record-breaking recovery and return of roughly $4.2 billion.

Over the last three fiscal years alone – thanks to the President’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force and its federal, state, and local partners – we have filed nearly 10,000 financial fraud cases against nearly 14,500 defendants, including more than 2,900 mortgage fraud defendants.  As these actions prove, our resolve to protect consumers and seek justice against any who would take advantage of their fellow citizens has never been stronger.

The same can be said of the Department’s vigorous commitment to the enforcement of key civil rights protections.  Since 2009, this commitment has led our Civil Rights Division to file more criminal civil rights cases than ever before – including record numbers of human trafficking cases.  Using new tools and authorities, including the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, we’ve improved our ability to safeguard our civil rights and pursue justice for those who are victimized because of their gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.  We will continue working to guarantee that – in our workplaces and military bases; in our housing and lending markets; in our schools and places of worship; in our immigrant communities and our voting booths – the rights of all Americans are protected.

But all of this is only the beginning.  As we look toward the future, my colleagues and I are also determined to work closely with Members of Congress to secure essential legislative changes – including commonsense steps to prevent and reduce gun violence, and comprehensive legislation to fix our nation’s broken immigration system.

It’s long past time to allow the estimated 11 million individuals who are here in an undocumented status to step out of the shadows, to guarantee that all are playing by the same rules, and to require responsibility from everyone – both undocumented workers and those who hire them.  Like many of you, I am encouraged to see that these basic principles are reflected in the bipartisan reform proposal that is currently being considered by the Senate.  The Department will do all it can to help strengthen that proposal, and to advance a constructive, responsible dialogue on this issue.  I understand that this Committee and other Members are working on immigration reform proposals as well, and I look forward to working with you as those efforts move forward to enact comprehensive reforms.

However, I must note that our capacity to continue building upon the Department’s recent progress is threatened by the long-term consequences of budget sequestration and Joint Committee reductions, which will worsen in Fiscal Year 2014, unless Congress adopts a balanced deficit reduction plan.  Should Congress fail to do so, I fear that these reductions will undermine our ability to deliver justice for millions of Americans, and to keep essential public safety professionals on the job.

We cannot allow this to happen.  This morning, I ask for your support in preventing these cuts and ensuring that the Department has the resources it needs to fulfill its critical missions.  I thank you, once again, for the chance to discuss our current efforts with you today.  And I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Goodlatte’s prepared opening statement:

Welcome, Attorney General Holder, to your sixth appearance before the House Judiciary Committee since your confirmation in 2009.  We are happy to have you here with us today.

Last month, the city of Boston and the nation as a whole was gripped with fear as the historic Boston Marathon, traditionally a day of celebration, was attacked by twin explosions that killed three people and injured more than 250.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev set off the explosions, then shot and killed MIT police officer Sean Collier and seriously wounded Boston Transit police officer Richard Donohue while attempting to elude capture.  Tamerlan died after a fierce gun battle with police and Dzhokhar eventually surrendered after sustaining serious injuries himself.

I would like to commend the FBI, and all of the federal, state and local law enforcement agents who worked tirelessly to identify the bombers and apprehend Dzhokhar.

The Patriots Day attack in Boston shows us that domestic terror threats are real, ongoing, and can have deadly consequences.  In 2010, FBI Director Mueller and other intelligence officials warned us that domestic and lone-wolf extremists are now just as serious a threat to our safety as al-Qaeda.  We have been fortunate that, until April 15th of this year, previous domestic terror plots have been foiled.

The bombings in Boston remind us that the terror threat has not diminished, but that it is ever-present and evolving.  It is critical that Congress, and this Committee in particular, ensure that our ability to detect, deter, and prosecute these threats keeps pace with this evolution.

To that end, I look forward to hearing from you today about ways that Congress can amend the federal rules for criminal cases to make sure that we are able to prosecute terrorism cases, while still allowing law enforcement to learn critical information to stop future attacks.

I am also concerned about reports that in the years leading up to the Boston attack, several different federal agencies or departments received intelligence about the bombers.  These agencies did not connect the dots – and this is not the first time this has happened in recent years.  The question that the Administration and we in Congress need to address is whether there are any improvements that can be made going forward to facilitate inter-agency information sharing, so that we can better thwart future domestic terrorists.

I am also interested to hear today about how the Department intends to tighten its belt in a responsible way during this time of fiscal uncertainty.  I was pleased to hear that the Department was ultimately able to prioritize its spending to avoid furloughing federal agents and prison guards in response to the sequester, which reduced the Department’s more than $27 billion budget by approximately 5 percent.

However, after learning of elaborate conferences with $12 cups of coffee, $10,000 pizza parties, and a vast array of duplicative grant programs, I am confident that there are many ways the Department can root out waste and duplication without harming critical missions.  With our national debt at more than $16 trillion, the American people deserve no less.

I am also deeply concerned about a pattern I see emerging at the Department under your leadership in which conclusions reached by career attorneys after thorough investigation are overruled by Administration appointees for political reasons.

For instance, investigators from this Committee and the Oversight and Government Reform Committee have uncovered conclusive evidence that Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez, against the strong recommendations of career attorneys, struck a secret deal with the city of St. Paul in order to block the Supreme Court from freely and impartially adjudicating an appeal that the Court had affirmatively chosen to hear.  This secret deal undermined the rule of law and robbed the American taxpayers of the opportunity to recover over $200 million fraudulently obtained funds.

What is more, the New York Times recently reported that political appointees at the Department, over the vehement objections of career attorneys, decided to commit as much as $4.4 billion in taxpayer money to compensate thousands of farmers who had never claimed bias in court.  A small group of female and Hispanic farmers, based on claims similar to those in Pigford, had made allegations that the Department of Agriculture had discriminated against them in administering its loan programs.  However, according to the Times, career attorneys within the Department determined that there was “no credible evidence of widespread discrimination,” that “the legal risks did not justify the costs,” and that it was “legally questionable to sidestep Congress and compensate the . . . farmers out of . . . the Judgment Fund.”

Just last week we learned that IRS employees have admittedly targeted conservative groups for additional and unwarranted scrutiny, just because they chose to exercise their First Amendment rights.  This is outrageous, and Congress and the American people expect answers and accountability.

Finally, just two days ago it was revealed that the Justice Department obtained telephone records for more than 20 Associated Press reporters and editors over a two-month period.  These requests appear to be very broad and intersect important First Amendment protections.  Any abridgement of the First Amendment right to the freedom of the press is very concerning, and members of the Committee want to hear an explanation from you today.

I look forward to hearing your answers on all of these important topics today, as well as on other issues of significance to the Justice Department and the country.

With reporting by Alex Rogers