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Holder on the 'Ongoing Matter About Which I Know Nothing'

Attorney General Eric Holder passed the buck on blame with a series of non-answers in regard to recent scandals during a scheduled appearance before the House Judiciary Committee today.

Holder was due before the panel for a regular oversight hearing, but the timing as the IRS and AP scandals unfolded meant he was under extra fire for the handling of his department.

“There’s been a lot of criticism raised about the scope of this investigation, including why the Department needed to subpoena records for 20 people over a lengthy two-month period,” Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) asked Holder of the DOJ’s grab of Associated Press phone records.

“Yeah, I mean, there’s been a lot of criticism. In fact, the head of the RNC called for my resignation, in spite of the fact that I was not the person involved in that decision,” Holder said. “But be that as it may, I was recused in that matter, as I described, I guess, in a press conference that I held, yesterday, the decision to issue this subpoena was made by the people presently involved in the case. The matter’s being supervised by the deputy attorney general. I am not familiar with the reasons why the subpoena was constructed in the way that it was, because I’m not a part of the case.”

“It’s my understanding that one of the requirements before compelling process from a media outlet is to give the outlet notice. Do you know why that was not done?” Goodlatte asked.

“There are exceptions to that rule,” Holder responded. “I do not know, however, with regard to this particular case why that was or was not done. I simply don’t have a factual basis to answer that question.”

The attorney general claims he was recused from the case because he was “a possessor of the information that was ultimately leaked.”

The AP story last May that got the administration so riled up was about a foiled underwear bomb plot originating from Yemen to mark the death of Osama bin Laden. At the time, President Obama was campaigning on a narrative that al-Qaeda had largely been defeated.

After claiming he had no idea who in the department made the grab of the AP’s records, Holder said, “I’ve just been given a note that we have in fact confirmed that the deputy was the one who authorized the subpoena.”

“Mr. Attorney General, I think that this committee has been frustrated for at least the last two and a half years, if not the last four and a half years, that there doesn’t seem to be any acceptance of responsibility in the Justice Department for things that have gone wrong,” said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.).

The congressman suggested that Holder and his deputies go to the Truman Library and “take a picture of this thing that he had on his desk that said ‘the buck stops here,’ because we doesn’t know where the buck stops.”

Some committee Democrats criticized Republicans for demanding aggressive investigation of press leaks a year ago and now being upset about the surveillance of the AP. “Now, of course, it is convenient to attack the attorney general for being too aggressive or the Justice Department for being too aggressive,” said Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.).

“But this inconsistency on the part of my Republican colleagues should not distract us from legitimate questions worthy of congressional oversight, including whether the Espionage Act has been inappropriately used looking at leakers, whether there is a need for a greater press shield — which I believe there is — such as measures my colleagues have worked — some of my colleagues have worked to defeat in the past, and Congress’ broad grants of surveillance authority and immunity that some of my Republican colleagues supported and before today have been unwilling to re-examine,” Nadler added.

Holder later called the AP scandal “both an ongoing matter and ongoing matter about which I know nothing.” He also quickly said he “certainly did not alert the White House” about the subpoenas.

Democrat Bobby Scott (Va.), noting there’s bipartisan agreement against the IRS targeting certain groups, asked Holder if there are “any gaps in the criminal code that would make it difficult for you to pursue criminal sanctions if you find that IRS agents were denying benefits under the Internal Revenue Code based on politics.”

“That actually is a good question, and I’m not sure what the answer is,” the attorney general said. “…And I think we’re going to have to get into the investigation before I can answer that question more intelligently.”

“But to the extent that there are enforcement gaps that we find, we will let this committee know and hopefully work with this committee to make sure that what happened and was outrageous, as I’ve said, and hope and if we have to bring criminal actions so that that kind of action, that kind of activity, does not happen again,” he continued.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) asked if those whose rights were violated in the IRS case would have any civil recourse.

“That I’m not sure. We’d probably have to get back to you with an answer on that. I just don’t know what civil recourse they might have,” Holder said.

When asked at another point by Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) if the Cincinnati office of the IRS actually handles all tax-exempt organizations nationwide, Holder responded, “We’re at the beginning of our investigation. I don’t know exactly how IRS is constructed at this point. But if that’s what you said, I take you at your word.”

“One thing I would say is this whole notion of 501(c)(4) groups, I think that some, you know, inquiry into that area is appropriate, but it has to be done in a way that does not depend on the political persuasion of the group,” added Holder.

When asked if he blame-shifts, the attorney general simply responded, “No.”

“We get the theatrics,” said Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.). “We know we wait 650 days from the time IRS officials become aware of the abuses at the Internal Revenue Service until the department opens an investigation. And then we say we can’t comment because we’ve got investigations going. Saying ‘I can’t comment because of an ongoing investigation’ has kind of become the Fifth Amendment of politics for this administration.”

After the hearing, Sensenbrenner said “recent events further demonstrate that DOJ is inefficient and lacks adequate oversight and leadership.”

“We still need an adequate explanation on why the phone records of more than 20 AP reporters were subpoenaed. The regulations place the responsibility for approving these requests directly on the attorney general,” the Wisconsin Republican said. “The Obama administration claims to value the freedom of the press, but contradictorily, it has violated its own regulations regarding media subpoenas. While in certain instances, actions must be taken in the name of national security, the scope of this subpoena was an obvious abuse of power.”

In the upper chamber, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) wrote Holder today to tell the attorney general “it seems clear that the Department of Justice flagrantly crossed the line.”

“Such ill-advised actions create distrust in the American people,” the Democrat added. “They also make it more difficult for agencies such as the Department of Justice to utilize all of the legitimate and legal tools at their disposal to keep us safe.”

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) asked for more explanation as well.

“I want to understand fully your involvement in this matter: what you knew, when you knew, what you authorized and what basis you had for making the decisions you did. To the extent you were not involved, I want to know who was, what they decided,” he wrote to Holder.

“The Justice Department should be more aggressive in its investigation of the leaker(s), and out of proper regard for the First Amendment, less sweeping in its intrusion into the constitutionally protected activity of those who reported the leak.”