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Holder defends targeted killings policy, hints at memo release

In an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder defended the Obama administration’s targeted killings policy, even in cases of American citizens who may be on U.S. soil, in some situations where they are planning an imminent attack on the country.

Even as Holder finished his testimony, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., began a filibuster of CIA director nominee John Brennan as a gesture of protest against the administration’s policy.

Holder told the Judiciary Committee that he expects Obama himself will be speaking about the controversy in the near future.

The attorney general repeated what he had said in a letter this week to Paul, “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.”

Addressing Holder's "no intent" statement, Paul later said in his Senate speech, "I frankly don't think that's good enough."

Holder explained in his testimony that for terrorist suspects inside the United States, the government has the ability to arrest them and prosecute them. But there’s little or no feasibility of capture in places such as Pakistan, he said.

The use of drones inside the United States to kill a terrorists planning an attack is, he said, “entirely, entirely hypothetical.”

Attorney General Eric Holder was on Capitol Hill Wednesday morning testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on his agency's policies from guns to drones. NBC's Pete Williams reports.

In a lengthy wrangle with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Holder repeatedly said the use of a drone to kill a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil who wasn’t an imminent threat would not be an “appropriate” use of lethal force, but it took some minutes before Holder said it would also not be constitutional.

Cruz told Holder, “I find it remarkable that in that hypothetical -- which is deliberately very simple -- you are unable to give a simple, one word one syllable answer: ‘No.’”

Holder said, “I thought I was saying ‘no.’ All right, no.”

Cruz will be offering a bill this week to clarify that the government does not have the authority to kill an American citizen on U.S. soil in the absence of an imminent threat.

Related: Holder: No drone strikes in US, except in 'extraordinary circumstance'

But Holder expressed doubt about such legislation, saying it might “run contrary to” the Article II powers the president has under the Constitution, but said he’d look at the legislation.

Under pressure from both Democratic and Republican Judiciary Committee members, Holder gave some indications the Obama administration may soon release the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) memos which members of Congress have been seeking that would explain the justification for the administration’s use of targeted killings.

He won some understanding from committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who told Holder, “I realize the decision is not entirely in your hands.”

And Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who has read at least some of the memos in her capacity as chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said “they are very sound opinions” and argued that the administration would be better off releasing them.

When she urged Holder to give the memos to Judiciary Committee members, he replied, “I have heard you. The president has heard you.”

Pressed on the same topic by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, Holder said, “I will be bringing that to the attention of the appropriate people within the administration.” He did not identify who those people were. “I’m not unsympathetic” to senators’ requests to see the OLC memos, he said.

When Lee complained that the Department of Justice white paper (first published by NBC News) that discusses the targeted killings policy did not clearly define “imminent” in its use of “imminent threat,” Holder replied that the white paper definition would be clear if Lee could read the OLC memos.

Holder faced criticism from Republican committee members such as Lee, Cruz and Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, but won strong support from one Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

“I want to congratulate you and the president,” he said, “I think you have thought long and hard about how to defend the homeland during difficult circumstances. I want to applaud your efforts with the drone program -- it has really helped us in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

He added, “I want to stand by you and the president to make sure we don’t criminalize the war and that the commander in chief continues to have the authority to protect us all.” He said “a lot of my colleagues are well-meaning but there is only one commander-in-chief in our Constitution.”

Citing previous wars in which Americans have joined the enemies’ cause, such as German-American saboteurs in World War II, Graham told Holder that it is a long-standing principle that such people are enemy combatants. Holder concurred with that view.

When Congress passed the use of force resolution after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks, Graham said, “We didn’t exempt the homeland, did we?” Holder agreed that Congress had not done exempted U.S. soil.

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