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U.S. Attorney-General Holder on the hot seat on phone, tax records Add to ...

U.S. Attorney-General Eric Holder finds himself in the hot seat this week on issues ranging from press freedom to taxation that are stoking fears of excessive government intrusion under President Barack Obama.

Here’s a quick look at what’s happening:

Reporters’ phone records

The U.S. administration pushed back Tuesday after being accused of undermining press freedom by seizing reporters’ phone records, claiming officials took the drastic steps to protect American lives.

Amid a barrage of criticism, Mr. Holder said the Justice Department secretly took telephone logs from the U.S. news agency the Associated Press as part of a probe into a security breach that had put the American people at risk.

“I’ve been a prosecutor since 1976. And I have to say that this is among, if not the most serious … a … very, very serious leak,” Mr. Holder said.

The investigators’ action is believed to be linked to a probe into a story – which they suspect contained leaked information – on a foiled terror plot.

The AP said its story disclosed details of a CIA operation in Yemen that stopped an al-Qaeda plot in 2012 to detonate a bomb on an airplane bound for the United States.

Mr. Holder noted that he had recused himself from the probe because he was interviewed by the FBI about unauthorized disclosures in the matter.

A Justice Department statement said that since Mr. Holder’s recusal in June, 2012, the investigation “has been conducted by the FBI under the direction of the U.S. Attorney and the supervision of the deputy attorney-general.”

The White House, meanwhile, sought to deflect criticism that it was targeting the news media in its war on leaks of classified or secret information.

Mr. Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney, said the White House was “not involved” in the decisions to seek AP records, noting that the Justice Department operates independently.

“I can’t comment on the specifics of that, but I can tell you that the President feels strongly that we need … the press to be able to be unfettered in its pursuit of investigative journalism,” Mr. Carney told reporters.

Conservatives’ tax records

Mr. Holder said Tuesday he had ordered the FBI to open a criminal probe in a growing scandal over the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative political groups for extra tax scrutiny.

Mr. Holder announced the Justice Department investigation as the tax agency’s acting commissioner, Steven Miller, travelled to Capitol Hill for meetings on the scandal amid Republican lawmakers’ calls for his resignation.

On Friday, an IRS official revealed that the agency had inappropriately singled out conservative groups, some associated with the Tea Party movement, for extra scrutiny of their claims for tax-exempt status.

“I have ordered an investigation,” Mr. Holder told reporters at a news conference. “[The] FBI is coordinating with the Justice Department to see if any laws were broken.”

Mr. Holder said that the actions disclosed so far “were, I think as everyone can agree, if not criminal, they were certainly outrageous and unacceptable, but we are examining the facts to see if there were criminal violations.”

Mr. Obama has promised to hold any IRS wrongdoers accountable.

There were growing calls on Capitol Hill for the resignations of Mr. Miller and Lois Lerner, head of the IRS tax-exempt organizations office. Ms. Lerner apologized on behalf of the agency when she revealed the targeting of conservative groups last week.

Conservatives had complained about mistreatment by the IRS for years.

Other Holder controversies

  • Defence of the legality of extraterritorial drone strikes against accused terrorists – notably against Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who was an alleged leader of and recruiter for al-Qaeda operating in Yemen.
  • Reversal on trial locations for 9/11 conspirators: In 2009, he called for them to be held in New York’s civil courts. In 2011, he said they should be held at military tribunals.
  • Operation Fast and Furious, a sting that permitted weapons to wind up with suspected gun smugglers, allowing U.S. law-enforcement agents to track Mexican drug cartels. As a result, Mr. Holder was the only U.S. cabinet member ever to be held in contempt of Congress.

Staff, with reports from Agence France-Presse and Reuters

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