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Holder Speaks Out On Snowden, Drone Policy, Softening Sentences

Already one of the longest-serving attorneys general in history, Eric Holder says he has no immediate plans or timetable to leave. Here, he speaks at the annual Attorneys General Winter Meeting in Washington on Feb. 25.
Manuel Balce Ceneta
Already one of the longest-serving attorneys general in history, Eric Holder says he has no immediate plans or timetable to leave. Here, he speaks at the annual Attorneys General Winter Meeting in Washington on Feb. 25.

Virtually any time a major event ripples across Washington, the Justice Department is positioned near the center of it.

From the disappearance of a Malaysian airliner that carried three Americans on board to the fate of voting rights for millions of people, the attorney general has an enormous portfolio. And the stress to match it.

But after an elevated heart rate sent him to the hospital last month, Eric Holder says he's on the mend.

"Got some medication that got me back down to where my heart is supposed to be beating, and I'm doing just fine," Holder, 63, told NPR in an interview this week.

Five years into the job, the attorney general says he's determined to use the bully pulpit to talk about things that matter, like an overhaul of the justice system.

On Thursday, he'll testify to the U.S. Sentencing Commission about proposals to reduce prison terms for thousands of people in drug cases, changes that could trim sentences by an average of 11 months per defendant.

"For too long, we have labored under the misapprehension that we have to have these extraordinarily long sentences if we want to keep the American people safe," Holder said.

The whole system needs to be smarter and more flexible, he added, by "putting in the hands of judges what should happen to a particular defendant as opposed to going to a sheet of paper, a computer and spitting some kind of almost mechanical determination of what should happen."

Already one of the longest-serving attorneys general in history, Holder says he has no immediate plans or timetable to leave — not while cases to protect the rights of minority voters in Texas and North Carolina are just starting to move through the courts. But those efforts suffered a setback last week when seven Senate Democrats voted to block the Obama administration's nominee for the top civil rights post.

Lawmakers cited Debo Adegbile's work on an appeal for a convicted cop killer as a reason to deny him a job at the Justice Department.

"The political decision — and it was a political decision — not to pay close attention to what his record was or to be misinformed about what his record was and then to use that as a basis to deny him the opportunity to serve here as assistant attorney general is something that to me is extremely disturbing," Holder said.

The attorney general said that vote set a dangerous precedent that could scare lawyers away from representing unpopular clients.

"What he did was something that is in the finest tradition of who we are as lawyers," Holder added. "You take on unpopular clients. And then when you have the opportunity to serve in government, that should not be held against you."

It's such a long tradition for prominent attorneys that those Holder cited include former President John Adams and current Chief Justice John Roberts — both of whom handled cases of murderers without being blocked from big jobs or facing any punishment in their careers.

And speaking of punishment: The attorney general says he's still open to talking with NSA leaker Edward Snowden about terms of surrender on Espionage Act charges. Holder says what Snowden did was "wrong" and "inappropriate," but he promises Snowden will be treated fairly if he decides to face justice.

Yet so far, no deal. And no conversations to date, except with Russian authorities who are giving him shelter.

For now, the reasons behind the disappearance of a Malaysian airliner this week remain a mystery, too. Holder says he has offered to help foreign allies — but it's too early to say whether terrorism played a role. He also wants companies to start paying more attention to an international database of suspicious passports after at least two passengers on the missing flight boarded with stolen documents.

"Interpol does a really good job of keeping track of passports that are reported stolen," Holder said. "It's a database that is accessible, and it would be my hope that airlines and other appropriate entities would make use of that tool."

As for some of the biggest national security controversies of his long and bumpy tenure, Holder said he's convinced he was right about the wisdom of trying terrorists in ordinary federal courts — and he won't hesitate to send defendants to New York if they've already been indicted and are picked up overseas.

A federal jury in New York is hearing evidence in the conspiracy case against Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, the son-in-law to Osama bin Laden who was sent to the U.S. last year. Meanwhile, the military commission case against Sept. 11 plotter Khalid Sheik Mohammed is still limping along with no trial in sight, Holder pointed out.

"If that case had been brought in an Article III court, it would be over by now, and as I've said previously, Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his confederates would be on death row," Holder said.

Holder said he's generally comfortable with rules President Obama has set out for the killing of Americans overseas with armed drones — as authorities are weighing with at least one American on foreign soil. He said the U.S. national security team properly conducts an after-action analysis to examine whether any civilians died and to minimize the possibility of future collateral damage.

"You know, collateral damage is a phrase I just don't like to use," Holder said. "It is a euphemism. What we are talking about are the lives of human beings, and it's something that weighs on the mind of, I know, the president, those of us who are on the National Security Council. We want to do this in as surgical a way as we possibly can, minimizing the danger to others."

Last year, in a letter to Congress, the attorney general told lawmakers the U.S. had specifically targeted just one American overseas since Obama took office. The other three U.S. citizens who died, Holder wrote, were collateral damage.

U.S. drone strikes will doubtless be a part of the legacy Holder and his boss, the president, leave. But so will their response to the financial crisis that began nearly six years ago. Most corporate sharks have escaped criminal accountability, but Holder said the Justice Department hasn't put away all its hooks. Every 10 days or so, Holder meets with members of a financial crime task force to monitor big cases in the pipeline, along the lines of last November's $13 billion settlement with JPMorgan Chase over the quality of mortgages the bank sold.

"I guess the latter part of last week," the attorney general said, "we were talking about whether and how we might approach a criminal investigation with regard to a high-ranking official in one of these major institutions, and the statute of limitations would not be a bar to us moving in that direction — if the evidence warranted it."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.