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Eric Holder: The Complete Interview

In an exclusive interview this week, CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric asked Attorney General Eric Holder about prosecutorial malfeasance in the Ted Stevens case, gun laws, Guantanamo, reforming Bush-era politicization of the Justice Department, the state secrets doctrine, and much more.

The full interview appears below. The transcript has only been edited for punctuation, spelling and clarity.



Couric: Let me start by asking about the - the latest - event.

Couric: In an extraordinary move, a federal judge today opened his own criminal investigation of the U.S. prosecutors handling the Ted Steven's case, saying, quote, "In nearly 25 years on the bench, I've never seen anything approaching the mishandling and misconduct that I've seen here." What's your reaction?

Holder: Well, I'm obviously troubled by the findings that - and the statements that - Judge Sullivan has made. But we'll cooperate fully with the investigation that has been ordered. Judge Sullivan is an old colleague of mine. We served together on the bench here in the DC superior court. I understand that Henry Schulke has been the person named to - run the investigation, a person who I know well, who is a good lawyer here in Washington. So we'll - we'll provide the documents and make people available as is needed.

Couric: But isn't this a pretty stunning vote of no confidence in the Justice Department's ability to investigate itself?

Holder: No, I don't think so. I mean, I think the judge has decided on the basis of what he has seen in front of him that - this step is necessary. And I think we are fully capable of looking at - ourselves, if that was necessary. But the judge has made this determination. And as I say, we'll cooperate with him.

Couric: But he suggested that the department has dragged its feet, looking into the misconduct.

Holder: No, I don't think anybody can say that, given the fact that, in this limited time that I've been - attorney general, I looked at the case, decided that mistakes had been made. And made the determination that the case had to be dismissed, looking at the totality of the circumstances. I've only been - attorney general for a little over eight weeks now. I don't think that anybody can say that this department has dragged its feet.

Couric: But he said the matter was too serious to be left to an internal investigation by the department. So isn't that basically a vote of no confidence?

Holder: No, I don't think so. I think, as I said, that we have the ability to look at this matter. And we'll have the responsibility to look at it. He's ordered a criminal examination to be done. We have to look at whether or not there are internal - regulations that have been broken. So our office of professional responsibility will probably have to conduct its own investigation in any case.

Watch Katie Couric's full interview with Attorney General Eric Holder:

Couric: You're reportedly close to the lead prosecutor, Brenda Morris, who's under investigation for failing, among other things, to disclose crucial information to defense lawyers in this case. Another target of the investigation is, apparently, William Welch, who's head of the office, ironically, of public integrity. Will you fire either one of them? Will they stay on during the course of these investigations?

Holder: Unless there's some basis for me to decide if they have something wrong - they'll remain in place.

Couric: Ted Stevens paid a big price for this. He left his Senate seat. Do you believe he's guilty?

Holder: I focused on the conduct of our lawyers. And I thought that mistakes were made. And on that basis, I made the determination that the case should not proceed. And I really limited myself to that examination.

Couric: He said today at the courthouse, "Until recently, my faith in the criminal system, particularly the judicial system was - was" - let me just actually shorten this. Today at the courthouse, Ted Stevens criticized the prosecutors and said, "They nearly destroyed my faith in the criminal justice system." And then, he went onto say, quote, "Their conduct had consequences for me that they will never realize and can never be reversed." What would you say, Attorney General Holder, to Ted Stevens today?

Holder: Well, I would tell - Senator Stevens, and I would tell the American people that I look at this case as quickly as I could. I was disturbed by what I saw. And I took action as quickly as I could with regard to what I thought the appropriate thing for the Justice Department - to do was. To the extent that there are other things that need to be examined. Judge Sullivan has ordered such an inquiry. We will do an - an internal inquiry ourselves.

Couric: What about the next time your department has to prosecute a high ranking public official? Why should Americans feel confident that your prosecutors will be fair and ethical?

Holder: Because history has shown that the people who work in this department are good lawyers. They're fair lawyers. They follow the rules. We're not gonna be timid. People should not take from this episode any indication that we're going to be intimidated into enforcing the laws, going after those who - who break our laws, especially those who are entrusted - with great political positions. That is gonna be a focus of - this department under me. We're gonna go after white collar criminals.

Couric: The reputation of the Justice Department, as you well know, was seriously tarnished during the last eight years. And many feel politics trumped objectivity in the rule of law. How will you improve the situation and restore the image of the DOJ?

Holder: Well, one of the things is to look at those things that need to be corrected. Look at the various divisions. The civil rights division is a place, I think, that needs special - attention, needs additional resources. I've asked the president for those kinds of resources, in looking at the budget that we have for 2010. I think we're gonna get them.

I think one of the things that the department needs is leadership. And we need to let the people who - who serve in this department, the lawyers who serve in this department, who are extremely dedicated, who sacrifice a great deal to work as lawyers in the Justice Department, simply let them do their jobs. And that's what they want to do. Not get in - not get in their way.

Couric: Well, how - how will you keep politics out of the Justice Department? It seems to have played a role during the Bush administration. Now, perhaps - you know, a democratic agenda came into play during the prosecution of Ted Stevens, possibly. So how can you keep politics out of it?

Holder: Well, let me make some very, very clear. I grew up in the Justice Department. I Se - served - 12 years as a line lawyer in the public integrity section. This department under me will not have any kind of political interference. I will not allow political interference in the Justice Department.

Those who might attempt to do that will be rebuffed. The president gave me this job and asked me to be attorney general, with the specific understanding that I would do nothing in a political way. He said, "You make the difficult calls. We might not always agree on them. Your responsibility is to run the Justice Department - as you see fit." And consistent with the way in which - you had trained as a Justice Department lawyer.


Couric: Do you think these prosecutors were politically motivated?

Holder: No, I don't think so.

Couric: Just incompetent? Irresponsible? What?

Holder: We'll have to see what the - investigation shows. But - I'd be very surprised to see - if these lawyers had anything - any political motivation.

Couric: What do you think happened then? Why did they not, for example, turn over evidence to Ted Stevens' defense attorneys that could have had a major impact on the case?

Holder: I don't know why yet. But mistakes were clearly made. And the determination that I made was that that evidence should have been turned over. And on the basis of what that evidence was, I also made the determination that (UNINTEL) the case - should not go forward.

Couric: Let's move on to gun control, if we could, for a moment. There's been a recent state of mass shootings, as you know. And in late February, you said you wanted to reinstate the assault weapons ban. Then, a month later, you said you wanted to simply, quote, "Enforce the laws on the books." Did someone tell you to back off?

Holder: No. No one's told me to back off. I understand the second amendment. I respect the second amendment. I think we need to use common sense tools to keep the American people safe, to keep our streets safe. And I think the statements that I've made are - are consistent.

Couric: Well, it's been reported that democrats on Capitol Hill are getting increasingly chummy with the NRA and receiving more campaign contribution from that organization than in previous years. And nobody wants to get the NRA riled up. So has this become political at all?

Holder: No, I don't think it has. In fact, I look forward to working with the NRA to come up with ways in which we can use common sense approaches to reduce the level of violence that we see - in our streets, and make the American people as safe as they possibly can be.

Couric: But why not reinstate the assault weapons ban? Why do you think that's a bad idea? Fifty-four percent of Americans support that.

Holder: Well, I - as attorney general, I've gotta use the tools that I have right now. And the tools that I have that have recently - have been enhanced by - the recovery act, we have additional police officers that we're gonna be putting on the streets. We have additional monies we're going to be giving to our state - and local partners. We've reinvigorated the - the relationship we have with our state and local partners. Have to use those tools right now to try to do all that I can to keep the American people safe right now.

Couric: But you can't be a proponent of reinstating the assault weapons ban? You said in your congressional testimony that's something you would support.

Holder: Well, I - we'll certainly look at all the possibilities. I will consult with the president. And as I said - the president and I both believe that the second amendment is something that has to be respected. And we have to use common sense approaches - to keeping the American people safe.

Couric: What about gun shows? In over 30 states, people can simply walk into gun shows and buy a gun, sometimes, from unlicensed dealers without a background check. Would you support closing the gun show loophole?

Holder: Well, again, these are issues that we'll have to discuss. The president will be the one who will ultimately set policy. I'll certainly raise with him the thoughts that I have (UNINTEL) -

Couric: What - what are your thoughts on that?

Holder: Well, the thoughts that I have are that we have to make sure that we keep the American people safe. And we need to look at all the things, all the tools that we have, all the tools that we might want to have, and come up with things that are consistent with the second amendment. Things that are politically saleable and things that will ultimately be effective.

Couric: Does the closing the gun show loophole fall into those categories?

Holder: Well, that'll be one of the things I'll talk about with the president.

Couric: Ooh, you're slippery on this.

Holder: No. No, I'm not being slippery. I'm just telling you what I'm gonna do.

Couric: Okay. In Mexico, more than 90 percent of the guns, mostly assault weapons, used in drug cartel violence come from the U.S. So are existing laws really effective in dealing with this?

Holder: Well, I think one of the things we have to look at is we try to help our Mexican counterparts. (UNINTEL) the substantial number of guns that flow from the north to the south. Also, the bulk cash that flows from the north to the south. We have to have a better border interdiction program. Working with Janet Napolitano, who's the secretary of - department of homeland security, I think we're gonna come up with measures that'll make us more effective in that way.

I just spent the last week talking to the president of Mexico, the attorney general of Mexico. And we're gonna work together. We're - putting additional DEA resources on the southwest border, additional resources from ATF. I think those steps will help - reduce the flow of guns into Mexico.


Couric: What about reinstating the - assault weapons ban and closing the gun show loophole? Do you think that would stop the flow of weapons into Mexico from the U.S.?

Holder: Well, I think the thing we need to do is come up with those things we can do right away. And we're gonna be moving 100 ATF agents to the border. About 26 - DEA agents to the border. And that'll happen over the - course of the next 30 days or so. And I think that'll have a pretty dramatic impact on - reducing the flow of weapons - into Mexico.

Couric: You pledged - as you just mentioned, you pledged greater cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico. But given the fact that corruption, as you know, has infiltrated almost every level of law enforcement in Mexico, how will you know the intelligence - intelligence you receive will be accurate?

Holder: Well, I think the American people have to understand that the Mexican government is committed, in a very substantial way, to eradicating the effect of the impact of the cartels on Mexico. We have - what are called vetted units down there. Units that have been vetted by our law enforcement people there, the people with whom we deal - primarily.

But there have been a great number of sacrifices. A lot of people in Mexico have paid - in law enforcement, have paid the ultimate price in this battle against the cartels. And I think we have to support them in every way that we can. And we will.

Couric: How concerned, though, are you - attorney general Holder, about corruption within the ranks of law enforcement in Mexico?

Holder: Well, it - that's clearly a problem. And the attorney general of Mexico will - will tell you that. When you have that amount of money that's flowing - through any country, it has an impact, or has the potential to have an impact - on - society generally. And law enforcement - is no different.

And that's why these units are so important. Why the Mexican attorney general, why the Mexican president have made - an anti corruption battle such an important part of their overall fight against the cartels.

Couric: But that does make cooperation pretty challenging.

Holder: Well, it makes it challenging, but not impossible. And we've come up with ways in which we - are able to share intelligence with - those who are with us in - in these battles against these (UNINTEL).

Couric: President Obama announced he wanted to close Guantanamo within a year. Something - wait sorry. President Obama announced he wanted to close Guantanamo within a year. Where are you going to put the approximately 250 detainees who are currently there?

Holder: Well, there are about 250 detainees there. We make individualized determinations as to who will be released, who will be tried. We also have a detention - review policy under way. And those people, in the - detention review policy team, will make determinations as to where - people can appropriately be placed. No determinations have been made at this point.

But - at least - (CLEARS THROAT) one person has been - relocated to - to England. One person has been - been placed in the article three courts and will - will be tried. And we'll make a case by case determination as to where - the detainees go.

Couric: There are some third party countries who have expressed willingness to absurd some of these people.

Holder: Yes, there are. Not really at liberty to discuss who they are. But I will say that I have had contact with my - European union - counterparts and talked about the possibility of them accepting - detainees. And the one thing they've asked is that we share with them as much information as we can about who these people are. And we'll, obviously, do that.

Couric: Is there any chance that some of the high value detainees, I believe there are 14 of them currently in custody, will be transferred to U.S. prisons?

Holder: It's hard to say. At this point, we are, again, making these individualized determinations. And it's not clear where any of the detainees will ultimately end up. But what we will make sure we do is that the American people will be safe with regard to whatever decisions that we make. That is foremost - in our minds.

Couric: Recently, a federal judge who presided over the case of Musawi - Zacharias Musawi, said that civilian courts of capable of handling high profile terrorism cases. Do you agree with that assessment?

Holder: Yeah, I think, by and large, that's - that's probably true. Again, we'll have to make these determinations on a case by case basis. But we will bring, I think, a substantial number of those people who we decide to charge in article three courts. Others might be taken to - military courts. Others perhaps, to these military tribunals with - some enhanced - enforcement with some - enhance - enhanced measures.

Couric: But some of these cases involve classified information. Wouldn't that compromise national security, if discussed in open court?

Holder: Well, that's one of the reasons why we have to come up with, perhaps, alternatives to article three courts. Though article three courts do have the ability to handle classified information -

Couric: -three courts are to viewers who may not be familiar with that?

Holder: Article three courts are just our regular federal courts. They have dealt with classified information - over the years. And there are ways in which you can have trials in federal courts - without disclosing - classified information.

Couric: There is also the issue of the treatment of some of the detainees. For example, alleged 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. It's been reported that he was water boarded. You have come out publicly and said water boarding is torture. So how would that stand up in civilian court?

Holder: Well, that's one of the issues that we'd have to deal with. Try to figure out - exactly what we can do with detainees who have - have been subjected to these enhanced interrogation techniques. And whether that - poses a problem in bringing - tryable cases. And so, we have to look at these cases, again, on an individual basis and then decide where they best can be tried.

Couric: Senator Patrick Lahey has suggested a special commission to investigate whether federal crimes were committed when it comes to things like water boarding. Do you think that's a good idea?

Holder: Well, I think that's something that, you know, Senator Lahey, the people in the senate judiciary committee, the president will ultimately have to decide. My job is really to focus on the people who are in Guantanamo now and try to come up with ways in which we deal with them. And my focus is on either trying them or releasing them.

Couric: If water boarding, in your view, is torture, what do you think is the most effective technique to get information from, say - an avowed terrorist planning a massive attack?

Holder: Well, I think, if you look at the army field manual, there are a number of techniques that are used there. If you also look at the way in which the FBI - interacts with - with - with people, with people who are in - in custody, I think the FBI is very effective in eliciting information - from suspects, from detainees. And I think - had we used - FBI techniques in the cases that - we're now discussing, we probably wouldn't be dealing with many of the situations that we now have.

Couric: Can you give me a - a few examples of those FBI techniques?

Holder: Well, they - spend time - with the person who's being questioned. They - in some way - establish a trust relationship with them. And then, information seems to flow. The FBI has done a good job throughout it's history, and actually did a good job in interacting with the detainees - who they - who they had - interaction with.


Couric: Vice president Cheney recently said that President Obama is, quote, "Making some choices that, in my mind, will in fact raise the risk to the American people of another attack." He went on to say the administration is going back to pre 9/11 law enforcement mode. What's your reaction?

Holder: Well, I think that's totally false. It's inconsistent with the facts. The president has just announced in a - I think, appropriate way, that we're gonna grow the number of troops that we have in Afghanistan. That is a military response to the situation that we see in Afghanistan. President wants to do nothing that would endanger - the American people.

All the things that we're doing are designed to enhance the safety of the American people. And closing Guantanamo is, in fact, one of those things. It takes away from people who are our enemies. A recruiting tool. It actually makes our relationships with our allies - a lot less complicated. So this - if you look at what the president is doing, what this administration is doing in Afghanistan, what we're doing - with regard to Guantanamo, I think - the former vice president's remarks are - are way off the mark.

Couric: What do you think of him making those remarks to begin with?

Holder: Well, I would just say that I - I respect - former President Bush. And - former Secretary of state (UNINTEL), who indicated that, for at least some period of time - a period of - of silence in letting this administration try to determine what steps it's gonna take is - is appropriate. As a former deputy attorney general, I understand that I was never, ever critical of people who were in my position, or attorneys in general - understanding the very difficult job that those people had. So - I've got great respect for - secretary Rice and President Bush in that regard.

Couric: Are you implicitly saying that Dick Cheney was inappropriate and off base, making those comments?

Holder: I'll let other people decide that.

Couric: The state secret stock - sorry. The state secrets doctrine, developed by Bush administration allows the executive branch to refuse to disclose certain things in court because it could threaten national security. During a recent case in San Francisco involving five people who were part of the Bush administration's extraordinary rendition program, the Obama administration, as you know, used the same argument. Which came as a surprise, frankly, to the judge.

Meanwhile, the head of the ACLU said, quote, "Candidate Obama ran on a platform that would reform the abuse of state secrets. But his Justice Department has disappointedly reneged on that important civil liberties issue.' Why?

Holder: Well, the - the premise is wrong. I have ordered a review of the state secrets doctrine. All the cases in which - we have invoked that doctrine. I think there are a total of maybe 20 or so, just to make sure that it was properly invoked. And to see, in those cases, where it was properly invoked, if there's a way we can be more surgical, whether there is a way in which we can share more information.

A report is in the process of being prepared. I'll expect I'll have it in the not too distant future. And my hope is to be able to share the results of that report with the American people. So they'll understand exactly - why we've had to use the state secret - state secrets doctrine in certain cases. And why we - decided not to use it in - in certain other cases.

Couric: So you think it's appropriate to invoke it at certain times?

Holder: At certain times. But I want to make sure that we only do it where it's absolutely necessary. I would only apply the doctrine where - national security was at stake, where the lives of the American people were at stake. Where sources and methods used by our intelligence - at - our intelligence assets were used. This is a very transparent administration.

This is going to be a very transparent Justice Department. But I'm not gonna sacrifice the safety of the American people or our ability to protect - the American homeland. And that is - as I said, first and foremost.

Couric: Having said that, do you believe the state secrets doctrine was abused by the Bush administration?

Holder: Well, I'm in the process of looking - that is being reviewed now. And so, I'll see what the result of that - review is. And as I said, try to share the results of that review with the American people.

Couric: What's your gut though?

Holder: Well, I don't know. On the basis of the two, three cases that we've had to review so far - I think that the invocation of the doctrine was correct. We - we reversed - are in the process of looking at one case. But I think we're likely to reverse it.

Couric: Later this year, several controversial provisions of the patriot act will expire, including the wire tapping provision. Will the Obama administration seek to continue that policy?

Holder: I think we're gonna look and see how those policies have been used. And then, make a decisions - based on experience. Talk to agents, talk to civil liberties advocates. See what the results of these policies that were contained in - the patriot act, whether they've been useful, whether or not they need to be reformed in some way. And then, make a determination as to whether or not we'll support their - renewal.

Couric: As the attorney general, do you worry about the constitutionality of some of the provisions?

Holder: Sure. I worry about the constitutionality of all of the provisions, of all of our laws. One of the things that I think is response - that we - I have to do as attorney general is to ensure that, in everything that we do, we are acting in a way that's consistent not only with our constitution, but with our values - as Americans. That's what makes this country unique. It's what makes this country great. And it's gonna be the department of justice that - that I will lead.

Couric: As you begin this job, what do you see as your biggest challenge?

Holder: Keeping the American people safe. We - I come back to a Justice Department that's fundamental different from the one that I left. There was a national security component - to this job that really did not exist, at least, to the extent that it now exists, then when I left in - in 2001. So that's a huge part of what I do.

I think the other part, though, is to make sure that, what I call, the traditional parts of the Justice Department get the attention and resources that they have not gotten, I think in the immediate past. The environmental division. The civil rights division. The anti trust division. Those are places that I think need attention and resources. And we're gonna be very - active and aggressive in those areas as well.

Couric: And I know I asked you this, but I just want to give you one more opportunity. What will you do to restore the integrity of this department, which has been, as you know, badly tarnished?

Holder: Well, you lead by example. And what I think I did in the Stevens case - a great pain was to tell the world, "This is not the way in which this Justice Department will conduct itself." I'll make sure that the people of this department are adequately trained. That they have adequate resources. And try to make sure that we return to the traditions that have made this department great - and will make it great again.

Couric: I know you've launched your own investigation, but clearly, you're quite aware of what transpired in the prosecution of this case. What do you think went wrong?

Holder: It's hard to tell - at this point. I know the result of what went wrong. And that is that information that should have been shared was not shared.

Couric: You must have some impression. Was it sloppiness? Incompetence? Malfeasance?

Holder: I don't know. I mean, I really don't know. And that's what I think the investigation will show. I was able to focus on the fact that information that I think was critical to the defense - was not shared. You do that - look at that against the backdrop of the other findings that Judge Sullivan made and it just seemed to me that the appropriate thing to do, the fair thing to do - was to just say that - we're gonna terminate this case at this point.

Couric: How embarrassing was that?

Holder: It's not embarrassing. It's what an attorney general is supposed to do. It's a tough decision. But it's what - you know, it's what I'm supposed to do as attorney general, to set an example, to make calls based on the facts and the law. And ultimately, to simply do the right thing. And I hope that's what I did in this case.

Couric: I'm just curious because - actually this was almost - right after I met you at the Ford's theatre thing. You gave a speech here at the Justice Department not too long ago. And you talked about the fact that the United States is, quote, a nation of cowards when it comes to race relations. You were roundly criticized in some circles for making that statement. Were you surprised?

Holder: Yeah, I was a little surprised. Because I think, if you look at the speech in it's totality, and the context in which that remark was made, what I really was calling for was a dialogue among the American people, black, white, Hispanic, to just talk about the racial issues that have divided us for so long. And to prepare the nation for the diversity - that is coming. So yeah, I was a little surprised.

Couric: Maybe you can - well, so that's what you meant to say. And - and it got a little bit twisted. That's certainly how I felt after - after I saw the coverage. And another thing is, I know you've talked a lot, in fact today, with me about revitalizing the civil rights division here at DOJ. How do you plan to do that? And what kinds of things do you hope that division will focus on?

Holder: In a lot of ways, civil rights division is the conscience of the Justice Department. You can almost measure what kind of Justice Department you have by what kind of civil rights division - that you have. The civil rights division has, as it's responsibly, the protection of people who are, at least, able to protect them. Whether they are people who are in institutions - people of color, women. And therefore - I want to give the civil rights division a lot of attention, a lot of resources.

And empower them in a way that I don't think they have been empowered in the past few years. There are really good solid lawyers there who are not timid, who are ready to make the civil rights division all that it can be, all that is - all that I has been.

Couric: Why wasn't that a high priority, do you think, during the Bush administration?

Holder: I don't know. I mean, if you look at the inspector general reports, they're very disturbing, about the political hiring that went on in that case. That's something that simply will not be tolerated - in this administration. I - I don't know - I don't know exactly why they did what they did. But that's inconsistent with the history of the civil rights division on the republican as well as democratic attorneys general, and will not be the kind of civil rights division - under attorney general Holder.

Couric: As in your new job -

Couric: How do you think this department became so politicized during the Bush administration? How did that happen and why?

Holder: I'm not sure. I think that people lost sight of the fact that the department of justice is a special place. It's different from all of the other departments in the executive branch. Although the attorney general is a part of the president's team, you're really separate and apart. You have a special responsibility as the nation's chief law enforcement officer. There has to be a distance that you keep - between this department and the White House. And I think people lost sight of that.

Couric: Do you worry about maintaining your independence, because you are such a close personal friend of the president? And that distance is necessary?

Holder: No, I don't think so. I mean, I think he's a great lawyer. And he understands that great - Justice Departments are those that separate themselves from the White House. You have, right over there, the portrait of Elliot Richardson. And that's one of the reasons why I have him - in this room. He's a person who, I think more than maybe any other attorney general, decided, at great personal cost to himself, that the important - the independence of the Justice Department was more important than anything else. And that's why I am - have him right there. So that I can see that portrait every day that - I conduct a meeting in this room.

Couric: Have you and President Obama disagreed on any justice issues so far?

Holder: Not so far. But he's a good lawyer. I'm a hard headed lawyer. So I expect that we'll - we'll clash at times. But at the end of the day - you know, he's gonna expect me to do what's right and what I think is - consistent - what is consistent with - what I think is best for the Justice Department.

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