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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. The federal government is hurdling headlong into sequestration, the across-the-board spending cuts that take effect tomorrow. In a few minutes, we'll bring you some surprising history about a similar time in past budget battles, but first, to one of the many impacts President Obama has warned of.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: FBI agents will be furloughed. Federal prosecutors will have to close cases and let criminals go.

CORNISH: Those are just some of the potential effects of sequestration on the Justice Department. We asked NPR's Carrie Johnson to look into the claims.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Starting this 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 this week that the situation looks ugly.

ERIC HOLDER: Under sequestration, we'll do the best that we can to minimize the harm that actually occurs as a result of the sequestration. But the reality is that it is going to be hard. 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.

JOHNSON: Holder added an important caveat.

HOLDER: It's not going to be something that's going to happen suddenly, but over time, in 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.

JOHNSON: But for now, the most alarming claims that prosecutors will drop cases and criminals will walk free seemed to be just that, alarms. Konrad Motyka leads the FBI Agents Association, a group of thousands of active and retired law enforcement officers. Motyka says the FBI faces $550 million in cuts. No more new cars and no new computers, for starters.

Then, Motyka says, there's an even more worrisome effect on the people.

KONRAD MOTYKA: 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 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.

JOHNSON: 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 the sequester happens. But Senator 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 that says, quote, "the sky is falling approach doesn't help anyone."

Grassley says DOJ hasn't made a case that safety's at risk and he says he wants to see the budget numbers. At a 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.

JANET MILLS: Thank you and thank you, General Holder. Could you please - over here. (unintelligible) Could you please comment on the prospects for continued funding through the Byrne Grants for drug enforcement and drug prosecution and other criminal justice measures?

JOHNSON: Holder says the states are right to worry to 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.

HOLDER: One of the things that's really going to be hit in the Justice Department's budget is our grant-making ability. And as we look at the legislation our ability to, you know, share funds with our partners to support things that we have supported for years is really going to be impacted.

JOHNSON: Justice Department employees say they've already started to get their furlough notices. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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