WASHINGTON — When the Obama administration wakes up next month to a divided capital, no cabinet member will be facing a more miserable prospect of oversight hearings and subpoenas than Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.

Mr. Holder is a particularly juicy target because he presides over issues that have served as recurrent fodder for political controversy — including using the criminal justice system for terrorism cases, and federal enforcement of civil rights and immigration laws.

More than most administration officials, he has served as a proxy for Republican attacks on what they see as President Obama’s left-leaning agenda. At least two possible 2012 Republican presidential hopefuls have already called for Mr. Holder’s resignation.

“It’s likely to be a difficult year,” said Bruce Buchanan, a political science professor at the University of Texas, Austin, who said Mr. Holder’s coming fights are likely to “attract press attention in a way that steps on other messages the Obama administration would like to have front and center.”

Sitting in a conference room adjacent to his office this month, Mr. Holder pointed out that he had been deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, when both chambers of Congress were under Republican control and were conducting aggressive oversight of the Justice Department.

“You’ve got to understand that I cut my teeth in the leadership of this department dealing with the situation we’re about to encounter,” he said.

He defended himself in advance on some hot-button issues, and he seemed to hint at some steps in the realm of counterterrorism policies that might hearten his conservative critics in Congress but could draw criticism on the left. He also laid out what amounts to an agenda for the coming year, from continuing to restore the “traditional mission” of the department — law enforcement work put on the back burner after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — to national security matters, including a fresh push to overhaul an important surveillance law.

As Mr. Holder takes up such work, the incoming House chairmen most likely to play leading roles in Justice Department oversight are Representatives Lamar Smith of Texas, the new head of the Judiciary Committee, and Darrell Issa of California, who will lead the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Both declined to be interviewed, but Mr. Smith said in a statement, “I am committed to fair and reasonable oversight of the Justice Department and to ensuring openness and transparency of our federal law enforcement agencies.”

Mr. Holder said that he did not know Mr. Issa well, but that he had known Mr. Smith for years. The two recently had lunch, and Mr. Holder said he believed they could work together.

Like much of Washington, the two chairmen are likely to start off focusing on economic issues. But it seems inevitable they will turn to Mr. Holder, a frequent target of their criticism over the past two years.

Last March, for example, they released a joint letter criticizing the Justice Department for not doing more to investigate the community activist group Acorn, and for an early 2009 decision to downsize a voter-intimidation lawsuit against the New Black Panther Party, a black-nationalist fringe group they portrayed as an Obama administration ally.

“We’ve already seen this administration dismiss one case against a political ally — the New Black Panther Party — for no apparent reason,” Mr. Issa and Mr. Smith wrote. “We remain concerned that politicization at the Justice Department once again may result in the administration’s political friends getting a free pass.”

Asked about the prospect of oversight hearings and subpoenas involving the New Black Panther case, Mr. Holder said, “there is no ‘there’ there.”

“The notion that this made-up controversy leads to a belief that this Justice Department is not color-blind in enforcement of civil rights laws is simply not supported by the facts,” he said. “All I have on my side with regard to that is the facts and the law.”

Another high-profile issue confronting Mr. Holder in the new year is how to deal with mounting pressure to prosecute the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, over his role in a major disclosure of classified government documents. Prosecutors have been examining whether Mr. Assange could be charged as a conspirator to the leak, or for publishing the materials.

Mr. Holder pushed back against the suggestion that indicting Mr. Assange would open the door to prosecuting traditional news organizations that take steps to ferret out and disclose information the government says should be a secret — including The New York Times, which published some of the WikiLeaks documents and often writes about classified matters.

“Do you think that what you do is consistent with what you understand Assange and WikiLeaks did?” Mr. Holder asked a reporter. “Would I have liked not to see the stuff appear? Yes. But did The Times act in a responsible way? I would say yes. I am not certain I would say that about those people who were responsible for the initial leaks and the wholesale dumping of materials.” (While WikiLeaks was criticized for publishing a cache of Afghanistan war documents without redacting some details about informers, it has since been more cautious. Of a cache of more than 250,000 State Department cables, it has so far published fewer than 2,000, many of which were selected and redacted by a consortium of newspapers, including The Times.)

Meanwhile, Mr. Holder seems to be adjusting the Justice Department’s legislative agenda in light of the new Congress.

He said he agreed with the director of the F.B.I., Robert S. Mueller III, that there is a need to make sure that Internet-based communications providers — like those providing encrypted e-mail and chat services — design their systems so that they can be wiretapped, just like phone companies.

Obama administration officials have been developing a draft bill to impose that mandate, although the administration has not yet signed off on it. The plan has drawn criticism from advocates of Internet freedom, who argue that it would impede technological innovation and that any tools developed to eavesdrop on suspected criminals and terrorists could also be exploited by hackers or repressive regimes seeking to identify political dissidents.

But, significantly, Mr. Holder appeared guarded when asked about a proposal he aired last spring, dismaying civil liberties groups: expanding the time interrogators can question terrorism suspects before they must read them Miranda warnings or present them to a judge for an initial hearing.

Asked about reviving the proposal, Mr. Holder spoke vaguely about continuing conversations with lawmakers. But he also disclosed that the department had sent “guidance” to agents emphasizing that under existing law, they can question terrorism suspects about immediate threats to public safety before reading them Miranda warnings.

Still, no issue has fed more Republican attacks on Mr. Holder than his support for sometimes using the criminal justice system to handle terrorism cases — especially his November 2009 decision to prosecute Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-professed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, in federal court rather than a military commission.

The White House soon pulled back that decision amid concern about the cost and disruption of providing security for the trial in Manhattan, leaving Mr. Holder exposed. The issue of where to hold a trial has remained in limbo ever since.

This month, over Mr. Holder’s objections, the still-Democratic-controlled Congress passed a bill that forbids the military to spend its money to transfer detainees from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to the United States, even for trials. In the interview, he declined to engage with a question about whether Congress was doing him a backhanded favor by making the civilian trial option harder.

Indeed, last month, two potential Republican presidential candidates, Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and former Speaker Newt Gingrich, declared that Mr. Holder should resign over the outcome of the first, and possibly only, trial in regular court of a former Guantánamo detainee.

A jury convicted the detainee, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, on just one charge for his role in the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa, while acquitting him on 284. Mr. Pawlenty and Mr. Gingrich accused Mr. Holder of endangering national security by prosecuting him in civilian court.

But, noting that Mr. Ghailani will soon be sentenced to from 20 years to life in prison, Mr. Holder said he wondered “a year from now, when people look back and Ghailani is in jail, will that have the same resonance that people try to give it now.”

Indeed, he said, as a former American history major, he has to think about his job over the long run.

“You’ve got to just develop as thick a skin as you can, understand that some people will disagree with you on a principled basis but other people will disagree with you for purely political and partisan reasons,” he said.

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