Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Attorney General Eric Holder speaks before a meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General on Tuesday.
President Obama minced no words when he talked about how the looming budget cuts known as sequestration could hurt the Justice Department.
"FBI agents will be furloughed. Federal prosecutors will have to close cases and let criminals go," Obama said.
Starting late Friday, if Congress and the White House can't come to an agreement, the Justice Department will face $1.6 billion in cuts — about 9 percent of its budget. Attorney General Eric Holder told a group of state law enforcement officials who met in Washington this week that the situation looks ugly.
"Under sequestration, we'll do the best that we can to minimize the harm that actually occurs as a result," Holder said. "But the reality is that there is going to be harm. There is going to be pain, and the American people are going to be less safe. That is just a fundamental reality that people have got to get their heads around."
Holder added an important caveat — about when that pain will come.
"It's not going to be something that's going to happen suddenly," he said. "But over time — and a relatively small amount of time, we're talking over the course of weeks — the capacity that we have in the Justice Department is going to be significantly weakened."
But for now, the most alarming claims — that prosecutors will drop cases and criminals will walk free — seem to be just that: alarms.
Konrad Motyka, who leads the FBI Agents Association, a group of thousands of active and retired law enforcement officers, says the bureau faces $550 million in cuts, which translates into no more new cars and no new computers, for starters. Then, Motyka says, there's an even more worrisome effect on the people.
"It's going to reduce the ability of the FBI to hire new agents to replace those who are retiring, and it's going to result in furlough days, which means days for which agents and all the support personnel and analysts within the FBI are not able to work," he says. "And consequently, on a day that they're not able to work, by law, they're not able to devote themselves as fully to their investigations as they do right now."
That means less time to interview witnesses, conduct surveillance against suspects or dig through documents — something Motyka says will take a toll.
The Justice Department says its workers will face a maximum of 14 furlough days if sequestration happens.
But Sen. Charles Grassley, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, says the Obama administration is sowing fear. Grassley, of Iowa, sent the attorney general a letter this week. He says the Justice Department hasn't made a case that safety is at risk. He says he wants to see the budget numbers.
"The 'sky is falling' approach that the attorney general is taking doesn't help anyone," Grassley says.
At that meeting in Washington this week, state attorneys general worried about their share of the pie under a huge federal grant program. Janet Mills, the attorney general in Maine, was waving her hand with a question for Holder.
"Could you please comment on the prospects for continued funding through the Byrne grants for drug enforcement and drug prosecutions and other criminal justice measures?" Mills asked.
Holder said the states are right to worry about federal participation in drug task forces and other money the department sends to the states to help fight crime. Some of that money will be transferred to the Bureau of Prisons and other units, he has told Congress.
"One of the things that's really going to be hit in the Justice Department's budget is our grant-making ability," Holder said. "And as we look at the legislation, our ability to share funds with our partners to support things that we have supported for years is really going to be impacted."
Justice Department employees tell NPR they have already started to get their furlough notices.