Attorney General Faces Scrutiny On Capitol Hill

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Attorney General Eric Holder heard complaints Wednesday from both Democratic and Republican senators when he testified at a Judiciary Committee hearing. Democrats said Holder has not done enough to reverse Bush-era policies, and Republicans said he has gone too far.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

And today in Washington, Attorney General Eric Holder faced attacks from senators on both sides of the aisle. Some Democrats accused him of retaining too many counterterrorism policies left over from the Bush administration. Republicans said he's making rush decisions that put American lives at risk.

NPR's Ari Shapiro was at today's oversight hearing.

ARI SHAPIRO: Things have changed dramatically since the last time the Senate Judiciary Committee had an oversight hearing for the Justice Department. There is a new president, a new attorney general, and a new top Republican on the committee: Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): It is difficult for me to tell you this: I am disappointed.

SHAPIRO: The man who preceded Sessions in this role was a moderate. In fact, Arlen Specter was so moderate, he recently became a Democrat. Sessions made it clear he is no Democrat. He said Holder is too soft on terrorism. He accused the attorney general of caving to pressure from the left to release Justice Department memos authorizing harsh interrogations.

Sen. SESSIONS: The lawful and wise thing to do would have been to keep our secrets secret. Yet you did not. Instead you've now given a critical piece of information to our enemies.

SHAPIRO: The way these hearings generally go, the president's party plays defense. But today, Democrats doled out their fair share of attacks, as well.

This was Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont; Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee): I may know bones of the fact I've been troubled to see the continuation of the Bush administration's practice of asserting these state secrets privilege in attempt to shut down lawsuits.

SHAPIRO: In three major cases, the Obama administration has held to the Bush era position that a judge should throw out a court case because a trial would compromise state secrets. One case involved rendition for torture and the other two involved wiretapping.

Congress is about to consider a law that would revise the state secrets privilege. And today, senators of both parties hammered the attorney general over the fact that the Justice Department has not offered an opinion on the proposed law. Holder said it's coming.

Mr. ERIC HOLDER (United States Attorney General): We have some proposals that we have been working on that I think we're going to make public in a matter of days, that we would put forth for consideration by this committee and by Congress generally about the way in which we think we should handle the state secret issue.

SHAPIRO: Perhaps the biggest thorn in this administration's side is Guantanamo Bay. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina captured a sentiment that's common on Capitol Hill.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): I see a chance to start over here. But the problem the American people have, and I think members of the committee on both sides now, is that we need a plan.

SHAPIRO: Some Democrats have said they feel hung out to dry on Guantanamo. President Obama promised to close the prison. Five months later, lawmakers are still asking for a plan. Holder, again, said, it's coming.

Here's Senator Graham.

Sen. GRAHAM: Of the 250 people we have at Guantanamo Bay, what percentage do you think, at the end of the day, will go through a military commission Article Three Court?

Mr. HOLDER: It's hard to say at this point. I'm not sure the trends have necessarily developed. We've gone through about half of the detainees at this point. I don't think we're going to have a very huge number…

Sen. GRAHAM: Yeah, would you say less than 25 percent, 25 percent or less?

SHAPIRO: After a long pause, Holder said that might be about right.

If some detainees will be transferred to foreign countries and others will be tried in the U.S. that leaves a third category of people whom might be held indefinitely without trial. Senators wanted to know what the rules for that detention could be. And again, Holder did not have firm answers.

Mr. HOLDER: It's not clear to me that there are going to be people in that third category. But the president, in his speech, indicated the possibility exists that people could be placed in that category. But it will only happen pursuant to, really, I think, pretty robust due process procedures.

SHAPIRO: Such as regular judicial review and congressional oversight. Some Democrats have said the very idea of prolonged detention without trial violates American values and the Constitution. But Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said, I think you're on the right track.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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