Loretta Lynch Defends Obama's Executive Action, NSA Surveillance

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Loretta Lynch s testifies during her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing to become U.S. attorney general. Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, President Obama's nominee to replace outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder, endured her first day of grilling by members the Senate Judiciary Committee today. While Republicans chided the president's executive action and flagged the IRS targeting controversy, Lynch kept her cool and offered a frequent refrain that this was a new day and she looked forward to a cooperative relationship with Congress.

Lynch was often noncommittal as she fielded questions posed by Republican members of the committee, including committee chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa, senators Orrin Hatch of Utah, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Cornyn of Texas.

Lynch chose her words carefully when it came to illegal immigration. Responding to a question from Grassley about Obama's executive action, which effectively stopped deportation proceedings against a huge swath of immigrants, she would not say whether she believed the president's actions to be unlawful. "You raise a very important issue of how we manage the issue of undocumented immigrants," she said. "Certainly I was not involved in the decisions that led to the executive actions that you reference." However, she added that the administration's argument that prosecutorial discretion would allow prosecutors to prioritize deportations of undocumented immigrants with criminal records or who otherwise pose a threat to public safety seemed "to be a reasonable way to marshal limited resources to deal with the problem."

Senators raised other controversial topics, but Lynch seemed unfazed. Asked by Graham about the issue of surveillance by the National Security Agency, Lynch said she thought it was "certainly constitutional and effective." Asked by Graham if she supports the death penalty, Lynch said, "I believe the death penalty is an effective penalty."

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Loretta Lynch testifies during her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing to become U.S. attorney general. Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

Senator Dianne Feinstein questioned Lynch about provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act designed to help law enforcement fight terrorism set to expire in June 2015. Lynch said she supports those provisions. Feinstein also asked Lynch if she would be willing to release certain reports drafted by Eric Holder's Justice Department which outline the administration's reliance on the so-called State Secrets Privilege, which allows the government to exclude evidence from a legal case on the basis that allowing such evidence to be included might compromise state secrets.

Asked by Grassley whether waterboarding constitutes torture, Lynch said, "Waterboarding is torture."

"And thus illegal?" Grassley replied. "And thus illegal," Lynch responded.

Several members of the committee made clear their disdain for Holder; Cornyn, in particular, was adamant to have Lynch explain how she would perform her duties differently from the current attorney general. "How do we know you're not going to be another Eric Holder?" Cornyn asked.

"Senator, I will be myself, Loretta Lynch," she replied.