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Amid IRS and intelligence leaks furor, Holder prepares for House testimony

With controversies growing over a Justice Department subpoena of Associated Press phone records and the Internal Revenue Service’s scrutiny of conservative groups, Attorney General Eric Holder was preparing to face the House Judiciary Committee in an oversight hearing Wednesday.

The hearing comes a day after Holder told reporters that he’d ordered an investigation to see if there were criminal violations in the IRS examination of conservative advocacy groups that had sought nonprofit status.  An inspector general’s report released Tuesday blamed poor management at the IRS for the scrutiny of Tea Party and other conservative groups and said the agency has been slow to correct the problems.

The attorney general also said he’d recused himself last year from any involvement in the Justice Department’s investigation of national security leaks. Holder said he took the step to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Holder will certainly field questions on both the phone records seizures and the IRS investigation but there are no mentions of either in prepared opening remarks he’s expected to deliver to the committee. 

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder appears at a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, May 14, 2013.

The Associated Press reported Monday that phone records of its reporters and editors had been subpoenaed and seized in that probe.

Holder said in a press conference Tuesday that decisions in the leak investigation were being made by Deputy Attorney General James Cole and “the deputy attorney general would have been the one who ultimately had to authorize the subpoena that went to the AP.”

Cole wrote to the AP on Tuesday that seeking phone records from media organizations “is undertaken only after all other reasonable alternative investigative steps have been taken.” He said that the Justice Department sought the AP phone records only after a comprehensive investigation which included conducting over 550 interviews and reviewing tens of thousands of documents.

Holder said Tuesday that it “certainly not the policy of this administration” to target reporters. What has been done in the leaks investigation was, he said, “not as a result of a policy to get the press.”

Previewing Wednesday’s hearing, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., indicated that the panel will question Holder on a wide range of topics, including the subpoena of AP phone records and the IRS vetting of conservative groups.

“Any abridgement of the First Amendment is very concerning, especially reports that the IRS targeted conservative groups for unwarranted scrutiny during an election year,” Goodlatte said. “Members of the committee will also ask pointed questions about the Justice Department’s decision to obtain two months’ worth of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press. Congress and the American people expect answers and accountability.”

The Virginia Republican also said that in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, the committee will want Holder to address how the Obama administration can better share information among federal agencies “so that we can better detect and deter future homegrown terrorist attacks.”

NBC's Pete Williams joins Andrea Mitchell Reports to talk about the three scandals impacting the Obama administration.

But the leaks investigation seems likely to be a dominant topic of the hearing.

Holder told reporters Tuesday, “This was a very, very serious leak. I’ve been a prosecutor since 1976 – and I have to say that this is among, if not the most serious, in the top two or three most serious leaks that I’ve ever seen. It put the American people at risk – and that is not hyperbole.”

The leaks probe was undertaken at a time of deep congressional concern that Obama administration officials, including CIA chief John Brennan when he served as President Obama’s counterterrorism advisor at the White House, were providing news organizations with selective bits of secret information.

The top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, voted against confirming Brennan as CIA chief in March because he said Brennan had not been candid in discussing his own role in leaking.

Chambliss said he was “deeply disturbed” by Brennan's responses to the Senate committee regarding leaks of classified information, especially the disclosure relating to the al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula underwear bomb plot in May of 2012.

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