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Holder undergoes marathon House grilling on IRS and leaks probe

Amid controversies over a Justice Department subpoena of Associated Press phone records and the Internal Revenue Service’s scrutiny of conservative groups, Attorney General Eric Holder told the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that he doubted it would be “wise policy” to prosecute news media organizations for publishing classified information in the national security leaks case.

In a hearing that stretched well over four hours, Holder indicated that leakers inside the Obama administration, and not reporters, were the people his department was trying to find.

Holder said, "The focus should be on those people who break their oaths and put the American people at risk, not reporters who gather this information."

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder tells the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill Wednesday that he recused himself from involvement in a subpoena of AP phone records.

On the criminal probe into IRS scrutiny of conservative groups who’d applied for nonprofit status, he vowed a far-reaching national investigation which would not be limited to the Cincinnati IRS office that examines groups’ applications for nonprofit status.  

“The facts will take us wherever they take us,” he pledged to Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas.  

About an hour after Holder finished his testimony, President Barack Obama announced at the White House that Steve Miller, the acting IRS Commissioner, would resign at the request of Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.

Obama pledged to work “hand in hand with Congress to get this thing fixed” and to “do everything in my power to make sure nothing like this happens again.”

The controversies over the IRS and the AP subpoenas threaten to become the most serious political crises of the Obama presidency.

The marathon hearing with Holder brought both Democratic and Republican members together in accord that the IRS scrutiny of conservative groups was alarming and that the broad scope of the Justice Department subpoena of Associated Press phone records threatened First Amendment rights.

But Holder repeatedly told members he could not shed much light on either controversy because he has recused himself from the leaks probe and because the criminal investigation of the IRS which he ordered last Friday has only just begun.

When House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., asked why it was necessary for the Justice Department to subpoena AP phone records if the AP was willing to cooperate with the investigation, Holder said, “I just don’t know…I don’t have the factual basis to answer.”

Holder said in a press conference Tuesday that decisions in the leak investigation were being made by Deputy Attorney General James Cole and that he, not Holder, “would have been the one who ultimately had to authorize the subpoena that went to the AP.”

Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

Attorney General Eric H. Holder testifies during a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill May 15, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., told Holder, “I think we’re going to have to talk to him (Cole) about this,” and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and Goodlatte both called for Cole to come before the committee as a witness.

But Holder cautioned later in the hearing that Cole would be very constrained in what he could tell members of Congress about an ongoing investigation.

Sensenbrenner also used his time to berate Obama administration officials for not taking responsibility for what he saw as errors or misguided policies. He urged Holder, Cole and other Justice Department officials to go to the Truman library in Missouri and learn from the famous sign the former president had on his desk, which said “the buck stops here.”

In his grilling of Holder, Republican Rep. Spencer Bachus of Alabama seemed skeptical about how, why and when Holder had recused himself in the national security leaks probe and why Holder had not put the recusal in writing and dated it. Lofgren also seemed skeptical about whether Holder acted in line with federal regulations in recusing himself.

But Holder explained that he had recused himself since he was one of a small number of top officials who’d had access to the national security secrets that had been leaked to the news media.

The House Ways and Means Committee has scheduled a hearing Friday to examine the IRS scrutiny of conservative groups.

The witnesses will be Miller and J. Russell George, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. George issued a report Tuesday which was highly critical of how the IRS scrutinized applications for nonprofit status.

But the IRS officials directly involved in the scrutiny of political groups are not slated to appear at Friday’s hearing.

In a letter to Obama on Wednesday, all 45 Republican senators said, “We demand that your Administration comply with all requests related to Congressional inquiries without any delay, including making available all IRS employees involved in designing and implementing these [sic] prohibited political screening, so that the public has a full accounting of these actions.”

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