Attorney General Eric Holder faced impatient questioning from Republicans today before the House Appropriations subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, science and related agencies.
Ostensibly there to discuss the $27.6 billion budget proposed for the Department of Justice in the next fiscal year, Holder instead fielded queries about such varied topics as the Ford Hood military base shooting and the defeat yesterday of the bipartisan Senate plan to expand background checks for firearm purchasers.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who chairs the subcommittee, repeatedly told the Attorney General that he was “dissatisfied and disappointed” with both his decision-making and his interaction with the committee.
The most heated exchange concerned whether the Justice Department had offered advice to those investigating and prosecuting the suspect in the 2009 Fort Hood massacre.
Nidal Malik Hasan was an Army psychiatrist in 2009 when he was accused of opening fire at Texas’s Fort Hood, killing 13.
Wolf asked Holder about the case in a March 15 letter, which he said the Attorney General had so far ignored.
“We never get any responses,” Wolf said, growing increasingly agitated. “Once you’re out of here, you’re gone.”
He pressed Holder to commit to a time — first next week and finally by the end of May — to send a Justice official to Congress to discuss the issue with Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), who began today’s line of questioning.
Rooney repeatedly referenced a comment from Army Secretary John McHugh who told Nightline that those wounded in the shooting would not receive the Purple Heart medal because Hasan was not considered a “foreign terrorist.”
According to the transcript provided by the lawmakers in their letter to Holder, McHugh went on to explain the military’s decision not to charge Hasan as a foreign terrorist: “I’m not an attorney and I don’t run the Justice Department. But we’re told it would have a profound effect on the ability to conduct the trial.”
But in a statement to Main Justice, a spokesman for Secretary McHugh said that “no Department of Justice official, including the Attorney General, provided written or verbal guidance to Secretary McHugh on how designating Major Hasan as a terrorist would impact the military trial.”
“The decision as to how to charge Major Hasan was made by military prosecutors,” added McHugh spokesman Michael Brady.
“Would you send one of your people up to sit down with Mr. Rooney next week to say we were involved or we weren’t involved because you don’t seem to know the answer,” Wolf said.
The Attorney General said he would look into the matter (“probably in the car on the way back to the office”) but could not give a specific time for when he would be able to provide a response or send an official to provide additional information.
Meanwhile, Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) expressed his concern about the threat of cyber attacks and asked Holder what role the department would play “in helping to protect the country and the federal government.”
“Detecting and Disrupting these cyber attacks is a priority for the department,” the Attorney General told the lawmakers.
The proposed budget indicates $93 million would be provided for “cybersecurity enhancements” and to ensure that “critical investments in cybersecurity are made in a whole-of-government manner and that cross-agency priorities receive attention.”
Meanwhile, Reps. Andy Harris (R-Md.) and Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) questioned Holder’s commitment to enforcing federal laws against marijuana in light of statewide legalization laws passed recently in Colorado and Washington. ”Is there an added burden because of state’s making their own decisions?” Bonner asked.
“We’ve certainly continued to review the marijuana legalization passed in Washington and Colorado and we we’re certainly going to enforce criminal law,” Holder replied.
“Children are dying from drugs. It is a scourge,” Harris said, asking Holder to give a “general idea” of when he will announce the federal response.
Holder said he couldn’t provide a specific time frame, but “when it comes to protecting children and making sure that children don’t die, I’m really proud of what this department has done over the last four years.”
“It’s been something I’ve been personally committed to,” he added. “The decision that we make will be consistent with the policies that we put in place with regard to the welfare of our children.”
Rep. Hal Rogers, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, thanked the Attorney General for his work on prescription drug monitoring programs.
“Your department and you personally have been engaged and responsive,” Rogers said, adding: “I value our partnership in that regard.”
But he also cautioned that he was concerned by “a number of budgetary gimmicks and misplaced priorities, which undermine the integrity of the request.” In particular, he mentioned the Bureau of Prisons budget request, which, he says, relies on the enactment of legislation outside the jurisdiction of the committee.
The hearing ended on a tense note when Wolf noted that Holder had to leave earlier than he’d planned.
“I have 91 questions,” the chairman said. “But they told me you had to leave at 4:15. I was prepared to stay here until 6:30.” He asked that the Attorney General respond to the questions in writing but grew frustrated when Holder could not tell him when he’d have his reply.
“I’m going to ignore you,” Wolf said. “We did the investigation — your Civil Rights Division is a rat’s nest. You’ve been a failure with regards to the prison industry.”
Holder protested the characterization, saying “you said some things that I think are a little unfair with regards to the Civil Rights Division” and the findings in an Inspector General report released last month that found a “disappointing lack of professionalism” in the division’s Voting Section during the Obama and Bush administrations.
The committee did adjourn so the Attorney General could attend a meeting regarding the Boston bombings.
This article was updated to include the clarification by a spokesman for Secretary McHugh.