Senators Question Holder Over U.S. Drone Program

Attorney General Eric Holder went to Capitol Hill today to answer questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee on everything from guns to Wall Street prosecutions, among other topics. One prominent issue transcended partisan divides: senators' demand for more information about the U.S. use of drones in a targeted killing program for terrorists.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

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And I'm Melissa Block. It began around mid-day today, while wet snow fell on Washington D.C. Inside the Capitol building, a conservative Republican senator began to talk and talk - and talk. Rand Paul launched a filibuster to block the nomination of John Brennan for CIA director because of concerns over the administration's drone policies.

CORNISH: Also today, Attorney General Eric Holder traveled to Capitol Hill for his semiannual grilling about the Justice Department's priorities. And drones came up there, too. Bipartisanship is a rarity in Congress these days, but as NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, both Republican and Democratic senators demanded more information about a targeted killing program for terrorists.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The federal government shut down today because of bad weather here in Washington, but the Senate Judiciary Committee stayed open for business. Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, thanked his colleagues for braving the conditions.

(SOUNDBITE OF SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE HEARING)

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: I appreciate the senators who've come here today. I realize we're under - it's horrendous snow condition; I think it's up to half an inch now.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: That last laugh was from Attorney General Eric Holder. Over four years as the country's top law enforcement officer, Holder hasn't much enjoyed his time on the congressional hot seat. That's partly a matter of personal style, and partly a reflection of how many tough issues his Justice Department touches.

Exhibit A is a deadly U.S. drone program that strikes against suspected terrorists, including Americans who've gone to fight with al-Qaida. Lawmakers from both political parties want to review the department's secret legal rationale for those killings. Iowa Republican Charles Grassley.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: American citizens have a right to understand when their life can be taken by their government absent due process.

JOHNSON: Utah Republican Mike Lee says he doesn't understand how the U.S. can kill people without clear evidence they're on the verge of an attack.

SEN. MIKE LEE: I have to ask Mr. Attorney General - sir, what does eminence mean if it doesn't have to involve something immediate?

JOHNSON: And Sen. Leahy told Holder he worries about the program's reach.

LEAHY: Can you agree there's no scenario where it would be appropriate to use an armed drone on U.S. soil to strike an American citizen?

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: Well, what I said in the letter was that the government has no intention to carry out any drone strikes in the United States. It's hard for me to imagine a situation in which that would occur.

JOHNSON: That letter Holder mentioned was sent to Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky. Paul used some of Holder's remarks today in a long Senate floor speech against the nomination of John Brennan as CIA director. Brennan's advised the White House on the use of drones, but Paul said Holder's remarks indicated the Obama administration might also use drones domestically.

The attorney general said he's open to discussing some kind of special court to review the administration's procedures. He also signaled the criticism has grown so loud that the president himself may weigh in on the drone program over the next few months. Holder used his three hours on Capitol Hill to make his own request to lawmakers.

HOLDER: In calling on Congress to enact legislation addressing gun violence, including measures to require universal background checks.

JOHNSON: Starting Thursday, the same Senate judiciary panel will consider several new gun regulations, from those background checks and a new gun trafficking law to a ban on assault weapons like the AR-15 used in the Newtown, Connecticut school massacre. But moving those proposals through Congress will be an uphill battle.

South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham said he owns an AR-15. Graham says people need those weapons in disaster scenarios.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: I think it existed in New Orleans; to some extent, up in Long Island. It could exist tomorrow, if there's a cyberattack against the country and the power grid goes down and the dams are released and chemical plants or discharges...

HOLDER: Well, I don't think New Orleans would have been better served by having people with AR-15s, in a post-Katrina environment.

JOHNSON: Holder also got questions about the failure to prosecute Wall Street, the idea that some banks are too big to jail. Iowa Sen. Grassley said he wants a resolution before he'll confirm new appointees at Justice.

Carrie Johnson, NPR New, Washington.

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