Not a week after being barraged by House Republicans with questions about Fast and Furious and Florida voter registration, Attorney General Eric Holder faced a smaller number of Republicans at the Senate Judiciary Committee’s oversight hearing today.
But the Democratic majority didn’t mean that Holder could sit back and relax. On the panel sits Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who first began needling the feds about the infamous gun-walking operation in January 2011, a month after the slaying of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
Holder also received a resignation demand from Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), something that didn’t escape the angriest of lawmakers’ lips at the House Judiciary Committee.
Though the attorney general had an ally wielding the gavel.
“When Attorney General Holder took over more than three years ago, he inherited a department that many felt had lost its way and its focus on these core missions. His leadership has helped restore the department,” gushed Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.).
“I also appreciate how under the A.G.’s leadership, the Civil Rights Division has been restored and transformed,” Leahy added. “I applaud the department’s continued efforts to ensure that Americans don’t have their constitutional right to vote taken away by efforts at voter suppression and disenfranchisement. Such barriers recall a dark time in American history and one that we do not want to return to. We will never forget when Americans were attacked by dogs, blasted with water hoses and beaten by mobs simply for attempting to register to vote.”
Grassley dove right into the Fast and Furious questions, saying that the 7,000 pages of documents produced by the Justice Department in comparison to the 140,000 pages gathered for internal review was “just a spit in the ocean.”
“This constant stonewalling is why the House committee is forced to move forward with contempt proceedings,” Grassley said of next week’s Oversight and Government Reform Committee action.
When questioned about what privilege he was summoning to withhold key documents, Holder told Grassley that his department has “reached out” to Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) “to try to work our way through these issues.”
“I am prepared to make compromises with regard to the documents that can be made available,” the attorney general said, calling it “an attempt to avoid a constitutional crisis.”
“But I’ve got to have a willing partner,” Holder added. “I’ve extended my hand and I’m waiting to hear back.”
Grassley noted that he asked Holder four months ago to seek permission from the court to make the wiretap applications, a focus of last week’s House hearing, available to the public. “Will you seek the court’s permission to release the affidavits so people can read them and decide for themselves what they mean?” the senator asked. “And if there’s any problems with something sensitive, couldn’t a judge make an independent decision to remove any truly sensitive information before release?”
“Well, that would be a truly extraordinary act,” Holder responded. “…But, as I said, I am willing to consider that as a possibility to try to avoid what I think is an impending constitutional crisis.”
Switching gears to the investigation of intelligence leaks, which some have alleged likely have deep roots within the Obama administration, Grassley questioned the impartiality of the investigation to be conducted by two U.S. attorneys appointed by Holder. “Why did you assign political appointees as opposed to career prosecutors in this investigation?” he asked.
“Well, the people who have to lead these investigations have to be, I think, sufficiently high in the department to be able to command career people, to be able to interact with the investigative agencies,” Holder said.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) noted that the reporting in question cited “participants in situation room meetings,” which should simplify the investigation. “That boils it down to a very small and very specific group of people, all of whom by definition work directly with the president,” Kyl said.
“We have tried more leak cases — brought more leak cases — more leak cases during the course of this administration than any other administration,” Holder said. “I was getting hammered by the left for that only two weeks ago, and now I’m getting hammered by the right for potentially not going after leaks.”
He told Kyl that the two U.S. attorneys have the “moxie” to investigate the leaks.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked Holder how serious he would rate the leaks on a scale of one to 10.
“I think they are extremely serious,” the attorney general said.
“Would it be 10, nine, eight, seven?” Graham pressed.