WASHINGTON — Attorney General Eric Holder promised the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that the Obama administration will share more information with Congress and the American people about national security policies, particularly the government's use of drone strikes.
Holder's comments came at a hearing where both Democratic and Republican senators said they must have access to Justice Department memoranda that form the legal underpinning for precisely when the administration can use drone strikes to kill a suspected terrorist, even if the person is a U.S. citizen.
Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said the judiciary panel should have the legal opinions, some of which were provided recently to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and the Senate Intelligence Committee, which she chairs.
"I heard you and the president has heard you," Holder said. The attorney general said he is confident that if the public had more information there would be greater comfort the administration is acting in conformity with the law.
Without elaborating, Holder said a number of steps are going to be taken and that he expects "the president will be talking about this."
Fueling the senators' questions was a March 4 letter that Holder wrote to Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who asked whether, in the administration's view, the president has the power to authorize lethal force, such as a drone strike, against a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil.
In his letter, the attorney general said the president could conceivably have no choice but to authorize the military use of such force in circumstances of a catastrophic attack like the ones suffered at Pearl Harbor and on Sept. 11, 2001.
But Holder emphasized that the administration has no intention of carrying out drone strikes in the United States. Holder said Rand's hypothetical is unlikely "and one we hope no president will ever have to confront."
At Wednesday's hearing, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, tried to get a "yes" or "no" answer from Holder.
"Does the Constitution allow a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil who doesn't pose an imminent threat to be killed by the U.S. government?" asked Cruz.
"You have to look at all of the facts. But on the facts that you have given me, and this is a hypothetical, I would not think that in that situation the use of a drone or lethal force would be appropriate," Holder replied.
Cruz pressed on and eventually, the attorney general said "translate my appropriate to `no.' I thought I was saying `no.' All right? `No.'"
On another topic, Holder urged Congress to confront gun violence by requiring universal background checks, imposing tougher penalties on traffickers and banning high-capacity magazines and military-style assault weapons.
Holder said Congress should eliminate what he called misguided restrictions requiring federal agents to allow older weapons to be imported into the United States.
The attorney general also urged senators to confirm a new director for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The agency has been without a Senate-confirmed leader for six years. ATF has been mired in a long-running controversy stemming from a botched gun smuggling investigation in Arizona. ATF agents lost track of about 1,400 of more than 2,000 weapons that the operation identified as likely to have been illegally purchased by so-called `straw' buyers working on behalf of gun smuggling rings.
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