WASHINGTON — Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee fired questions at Attorney General Eric Holder Wednesday on the government’s surveillance programs, the investigation of political bias in Internal Revenue Service audits and the Department of Justice’s failure to provide information to the committee.
“It’s unfortunate that we always have to start on oversight hearing by asking the same questions,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the committee.
Grassley is awaiting a report on how alleged abuses of authority by National Security Agency employees were dealt with and also a review of the FBI’s whistleblower program. Ten months ago, President Barack Obama requested that a review of the whistleblower program be completed in 180 days.
“I believe that it is an appropriate use of constitutional sense of government power,” Holder said of the NSA surveillance program that collects millions of Americans’ phone records. “Just because we can do something, should we do it? That is what we’ll be working on.”
The IRS is accused of targeting perceived opponents of Obama with special scrutiny. Grassley and other Republican committee members questioned the progress of the IRS investigation, expressing frustration that no one has been indicted and criticizing the selection of DOJ attorney Barbara Bosserman to lead the investigation. Bosserman has donated more than $6,000 to Obama’s political campaigns. They also questioned whether victims of the heightened IRS scrutiny had been interviewed.
“In my view, the integrity of the Department of Justice has been compromised,” Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said.
Although Holder refused to answer specific questions about the investigation, he said he would release as much information as possible when it is completed.
“Let me assure you and the American people, the IRS investigation will be done in a nonpartisan, nonideological way,” Holder said. “We will try at the conclusion of the investigation to share as much as we can.”
Republican members also asked Holder to speak to the constitutionality of Obama’s plan to issue executive orders outlined in his State of the Union address Tuesday.
“[Obama] has made far less use of his executive power than past presidents have,” Holder said.
Sen. Michael Lee, R-Utah, argued that the nature of Obama’s executive orders have surpassed past presidents. He left the hearing, red-faced and frowning, while Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., defended Obama against Lee’s charges.
Republicans and Democrats both questioned the constitutionality of the NSA surveillance program and the potential for privacy invasion through domestic use of drones, which is slated to be allowed starting next year.
Lee said the NSA surveillance program “gives the United States government power to peer into things that are by nature very private.”
“Is there anything in the Constitution that allows us to pass such an overbroad law?” Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., asked about the section of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that allows mass collection of metadata by the government.
Leahy also voiced concerns over the “Orwellian aspect” of drones.
“I can almost feel my reaction to if I saw a drone flying over my farmhouse in Vermont,” Leahy said.
Holder responded forcefully to questions about the current state of cybersecurity.
“This nation needs to be afraid of where we could be after a cyber attack,” he said. “We as a nation have not dedicated the attention or resources for this problem and it’s only going to get worse.”