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Attorney General Grilled On Security Leaks

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Attorney General Eric Holder was called to testify on Capitol Hill today where Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee skewered Holder. They challenged his ability to oversee a rigorous investigation of national security leaks. They demanded more information about the botched gun operation known as Fast and Furious, and they even called for Holder's resignation. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Nobody ever said being attorney general was easy, especially in an election year. Even before his Senate confirmation in 2009, Republicans singled out Eric Holder as a target. Not much has changed since then, at least for Texas Senator John Cornyn.

SENATOR JOHN CORNYN: You've violated the public trust in my view and by failing and refusing to perform the duties of your office. So, Mr. Attorney General, it's more with sorrow than anger that I would say that you leave me no alternative but to join those that call upon you to resign your office.

JOHNSON: By now, more than three years into the Obama administration, calls to chase Holder out of office tend to ring familiar and futile.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: With all due respect, Senator, there's so much that's factually wrong with the premises that you started your statement with. You know, I could say it's almost breathtaking in its inaccuracies.

JOHNSON: The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing was dominated by a pair of controversies: an old one, the botched gun trafficking operation known as Fast and Furious; and a new one, whether administration officials broke the law by leaking secrets to make President Obama look tough on national security. Senator Charles Grassley, a Republican from Iowa.

SENATOR CHARLES GRASSLEY: I believe the only way and the only way to truly get to the bottom of these dangerous leaks is to appoint an independent special prosecutor.

JOHNSON: Instead, the attorney general named two U.S. attorneys who report through regular Justice Department channels to look into those leaks. Holder said the prosecutors would do an independent and thorough job. So thorough, that FBI agents working for them have already interviewed Holder and FBI director Robert Mueller along with nearly 100 other people. But Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, said he thinks there's a double standard.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: I am very disturbed about the inability to get information regarding programs that are embarrassing and the tendency of this administration to tell the whole world about things that are good.

JOHNSON: Holder got a boost from Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, who said she opposes the idea of naming a special counsel to investigate leaks.

SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN: A special counsel takes a long time. If you look at the special counsel in the Scooter Libby case, it took four years to complete.

JOHNSON: Feinstein, who leads the intelligence committee, said getting to the bottom of leaks about a thwarted plot in Yemen and a computer virus aimed at Iran are too important to wait that long. As for the second controversy, Holder did his best to derail a House contempt vote looming next week over his refusal to turn over information about how federal agents lost track of 2,000 guns along the Southwest border.

HOLDER: I myself am offering to sit down with the speaker, with the chairman, with you, whoever, to try to work our way through this in an attempt to avoid a constitutional crisis.

JOHNSON: Holder said he's extended his hand, but no one on the Republican side of the aisle has reached out to take it. At times, his remarks had the sound of a farewell.

HOLDER: Well, I've enjoyed my time as attorney general. It's been a tough job. It is one that, you know, takes a lot out of you. Some raised concerns about whether I was tough enough for this job. I've stuck by my guns. I've been criticized a lot for the positions that that I've taken. I've lost some. I've won more than I've lost.

JOHNSON: And four hours later, when everyone had left the hearing room except for a single Democratic senator, Holder got up, shook hands and walked out with a smile on his face. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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