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Holder Called To Capitol Hill To Testify On Controversies


On a Wednesday, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Renee Montagne is in Afghanistan this week. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene. Good morning. When we think about the controversies swirling around Washington this week, there's a common denominator. They fall on the shoulders of Attorney General Eric Holder.

INSKEEP: First, news broke that the Justice Department secretly obtained phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors. This has ignited a First Amendment uproar.

GREENE: And yesterday, Attorney General Holder announced he's opened a criminal probe into the Internal Revenue Service. The focus is on why there was extra scrutiny of conservative groups seeking tax exemption. Holder is sure to face questions about both issues when he heads to Capitol Hill today for an oversight hearing.

NPR's Carrie Johnson posed her questions in an interview with Holder yesterday.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: By now, Eric Holder's used to being on the hot seat. But the disclosure that his Justice Department got weeks of phone records last year for AP reporters, had the rare virtue of uniting Republicans and Democrats in Congress. All of them said they were disgusted by the overreach.

In an interview with NPR, the attorney general distanced himself from that decision, saying he stepped aside from leading the investigation because he had been questioned by the FBI last year about leaks.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: I really didn't know the AP was going to be subpoenaed. I mean, I'd been recused from the case and so the day-to-day operations of the matter are just unknown to me.

JOHNSON: That means Holder's deputy attorney general, Jim Cole, was responsible for the subpoenas. Cole tried to calm the waters with a letter to the AP Tuesday, saying he authorized prosecutors to seize the reporter records only after exhausting other options to find the leakers. No one seemed satisfied with that explanation. And Holder only raised more questions when he told reporters he had seen a draft of Cole's letter beforehand.

And is that normal practice, when you're recused from a case?

HOLDER: Well, no. I just wanted to see the letter. I saw it - I mean, I saw the draft letter this morning; and I just wanted to have an opportunity to see what it looked like so I'd have at least some sense of the case, in case there were things in the letter that I could talk about with the press.

JOHNSON: Seizing records from reporters is unusual, so unusual that I asked the attorney general how often he'd done it over the years.

HOLDER: I'm not sure how many of those cases that I have actually signed off on. I take them very seriously. I know that I have refused to sign a few; pushed a few back for modifications.

JOHNSON: He declined to say whether he'd review the Justice Department policy on that, as a group of news organizations - including NPR - has urged. As for the bombshell that IRS employees had singled out conservative groups for special scrutiny, the attorney general said this.

HOLDER: What we're going to do at the Justice Department, pursuant to my orders, is to work with the FBI; and to see if there is a basis to determine that not only something outrageous was done, but whether something illegal was done. And we'll see what the results of that investigation are.

JOHNSON: Also up in the air is the administration proposal to expand background checks for people who buy firearms. That plan died in the Senate earlier this year, to the delight of the National Rifle Association.

The new first vice president of the NRA has called you rabidly un-American. And they're signaling, they are going to give no ground on new gun regulations or even administrative actions. What's your response to that?

HOLDER: Well, first off, I was born in the Bronx. And so I'm proud to be an American. And the notion that I'm somehow, some way, as a result of some policy initiative that I have been in favor of or some speech that I've given - that I'm un-American, is just unwarranted.

JOHNSON: Holder says the Obama administration lost the battle. But he says the White House will try again in Congress this year, and it will use its regulatory power to make smaller changes in the meantime. The goal, he says, is...

HOLDER: Moving the needle in the way in which the American people want, which is to make guns less accessible to people who should not have them.

JOHNSON: The other issue that's dogged the administration is its approach to weaponized drones. This administration has killed - without charges or trial - at least three American citizens and countless more al-Qaida figures, with those drones. Holder says the White House is planning a rollout soon of more information about how he and President Obama get involved.

HOLDER: We've not really gone into the guts of it, I think, in the way that we might be able to - and that I think, frankly, will give the American people comfort when they understand that these are decisions that are considered at the highest levels.

JOHNSON: As for Holder, he can expect little comfort in his session with the House Judiciary Committee today.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.