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US Attorney General Eric Holder: "Obama is dear to me, but dearer still is truth." (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, May 17, 2012)

"Obama is dear to me, but dearer still is truth". Exclusive interview of Eric Holder, US Attorney General and Head of the Department of Justice.

May 17, 2012 | Source: "Rossiyskaya Gazeta" – Federal Issue № 5783 (110)

The US Attorney General on his authority,  the fate of detained Viktor Bout and many other things.  

Exclusive interview of Eric Holder, US Attorney General and Head of the Department of Justice, given to Michael Gusman, deputy general director of ITAR-TASS, for the Rossiyskaya Gazeta and Rossiya-24 TV channel.

Q: You are the Attorney General and Head of the Department of Justice rolled into one. How did such overlapping of positions historically originate?  What are the advantages of such overlapping?

Holder: The Attorney General was one of the members of the first cabinet in the history of this country.  There were just four persons in the cabinet and he was among them.  I think it was decided to unite different law enforcement functions under the roof of one Department in Washington headed by the Attorney General to ensure that all investigative bodies of the US Government abide by the law and operate in compliance with our traditions and our Constitution with a single person responsible for that.  Certainly, it is a great responsibility for the Attorney General.  But it also gives me an authority to enforce the policy, which is considered correct by the President, so that our traditions and laws are observed.

Q: You are the chief legal advisor to the President. Also, you supervise the FBI, DEA, BOP, etc. The number of duties is represented by the number of flags in your office. Do you have any priorities in this work and what kind of activity is most dear to you?

Holder: Good question. Most of my time is devoted to national security issues. The Department of Justice, along with other law enforcement agencies, is a part of the presidential national security team.  My working day starts at 8:30 with a briefing on threats identified and tracked during the last 24 hours.  During my working day I also spend much time on national security issues. Personally, I am really concerned about such things as the observance of civil rights in our country. 

Q: The United States is often called a country of laws. But it is also a country of attorneys. Does it mean that a US citizen is actually fully protected? What does a country of laws mean to you?

Holder: We are a nation of laws and a law abiding nation.  Indeed, Washington is filled with lawyers.  Why are we a law abiding nation? From the very foundation of our country, we have been proud of our ability to codify and put on paper what should be the basis of our national being. We have existed within the framework of our Constitution for more than 200 years now.  We are proud that we are considered a country of laws.  To our view, public life must be well ordered and in compliance with the rule of law and our values and traditions.  When we go astray and fail to hold to our declared values, we have problems.  President Obama made it a point that in his Administration he wanted the Department of Justice and the Attorney General to guard the rule of law.

Q: Your position is one of the most vulnerable. Both you and your predecessors have been frequently criticized. Therefore, the question is, who has the say in the matter and who do you appeal to?

Holder: Well, you know, I think the final authority is the American people. It’s the people who should decide, who is right and who is not, when somebody criticizes me or my predecessors.  This work is a kind of a lightning protector against critics because the Department of Justice processes all sort of stuff in the sphere of national security, or civil rights, or social problems. And whatever position we take, it is always criticized by someone.  I think, in the long run, the American people and history itself will decide whether my attitude and the policy I pursue were correct.

Q: Well, perhaps, the President, too. And as I see it, your main mission is to be the chief legal advisor to the President. You have much in common with him. You both are basketball fans and players, you both have graduated from the best legal schools: you – from the Columbia University, and he from Harvard University. How do you build your professional relations with the President? Do you work on his instructions only or do you ever suggest anything yourself?

Holder: I have had a longstanding relationship with the President.  Our relations had formed before he became President and I became the Attorney General. We are friends.  However, our relationship has changed since he became President of this country.  I do not work for him, I work for American people. And he understands that the Department of Justice should better be independent.  For this reason he refers to me with no instructions. Our relations have become, as they should, not so close as before, so that I could truly be independent.  He cannot call me and give instructions.  I have to operate independently.  I have to make supervisory decisions on how to ensure the observance of law. 

He is a good lawyer and he understands that I must have room to maneuver in order for the DOJ to be really independent and effective.

Q: I know that in the US every state has its own code of law. And that state laws do not always coincide with federal law. Which law, federal or local, should be observed by an ordinary citizen in Texas, or Arizona, or, say, in Pennsylvania?

Holder: There are issues and situations covered by both federal and local law.  In such events we have to work with our colleagues at the state level to decide who should handle the case – they or a federal agency.  In other instances there is only a federal law.  As a rule, these are situations when the interests of the whole country, rather than individual states, are involved.  However, we conduct a constant dialogue with local Attorney Generals to find out who should better pursue the case.  Sometimes we work together.  In other instances, we have to choose who should run the case, the federal government or the state.

Q: Can you suspend a local law using your authority?

Holder: No, I can’t, even when I, as the Attorney General, do not agree with a certain law in one or another state. On the other hand, if the state adopts a law that seems to be unconstitutional then I shall have the right to initiate a suit so that the law be rescinded by a court ruling. Such situations did occur during my tenure as the Attorney General.

Q: It is not a secret that the struggle against illegal immigration is one of the most painful problems in many countries. Do you know any solution to this global problem?

Holder: Illegal immigration is a global problem and its solution must be of a universal character.  Different countries must cooperate in order to establish a common approach to search for economic solutions so that people could have a decent salary in their native country.  That would reduce the scope of immigration we observe now. However, immigration is not necessarily the evil. Immigration is the way to renew nations and to spread ideas from one part of the world to another. But illegal immigration is certainly a problem that could be solved only by way of cooperation between countries of the world.

Q:  I am holding in my hands the Constitution of the United States. Here is its Second Amendment, which says that an American citizen joining the militia has the right to carry arms.  I know that this topic has long been debated.  Does this mean that almost every American can keep an automatic weapon in his closet, or is it only members of the militia who can be armed?  What is your opinion about that amendment?

Holder: Our Supreme Court has considered the Second Amendment and decided that what is meant is the individual right, that, although it talks about the militia, in effect the amendment defends the right of an individual to possess arms.   That does not mean that such a right cannot be regulated, that there can be no reasonable restrictions concerning individual possession of arms.  But the Supreme Court has decided that this is an individual right, not tied only to membership in the militia.

Q:  Arms have to do with crime, including the gravest ones, manslaughter.  In this connection, I have a question about punishment, about capital punishment.  I know that 17 states and Washington, D.C., have given up capital punishment, but most states still do have it.  Europe is strongly against capital punishment, and Russia is observing a moratorium.  What is your attitude toward capital punishment?

Holder: Personally, I am against capital punishment.  In my opinion, we have a superb judicial and legal system, but errors are still possible, because, in the end, the system is made up of people.  And, naturally, in the case with capital punishment, an error cannot be corrected.  But with all that I am the Attorney General of the United States, and capital punishment is stipulated in federal laws, which I must uphold.  Therefore, I must put aside my personal attitude toward capital punishment and enforce relevant laws.

This is one of the most difficult decisions that I have to be making, because I must uphold judicial appeals seeking capital punishment.  Those are very hard decisions.

Q: As for me, I am concerned about the trials of terrorists. I know that there will be trials of the organizers of the September 11, 2011 terrorist attacks in the United States. Terrorist and killer Breivik is being tried in Norway. If it is an open-court trial, doesn’t it become a form of propaganda of barbaric ideas? Doesn’t it have a harmful impact on society?

Holder: I think that judges in such trials must ask themselves whether the defendant’s statements are relevant to the case in point. Propaganda or an attempt to use the trial for propaganda purposes can be irrelevant to the case, therefore they should not be allowed. However, I think that the open nature of such trials and the fact that the public has an opportunity to assess the nature of charges and the credibility of evidence, and to see what a person has done and how he is tried for that according to law – all this will eventually mean defeat for the terrorist. If people trust their government, if they trust their system and rule of law, I believe that terrorism becomes less and less attractive.

Q: You will soon travel to Moscow and St. Petersburg. What meetings are scheduled for you? What do you expect to achieve?

Holder: It will be my first personal trip to Russia. And I look forward to the opportunity to visit both St. Petersburg and Moscow, probably more than I have ever looked forward to any other trip as Attorney General. Russia is a great country that has a long history and the longstanding interaction with the United States. I will be happy to visit both cities and, insofar as my schedule allows, would like to spend some time there just as a tourist, to see the numerous sights in these cities.

But we’ll have a whole series of meetings devoted to the rule of law. I’ll have a number of bilateral meetings with my counterparts in Moscow to discuss a wide range of issues. Of course, I will meet with your government ministers, with whom I’ve already met in this very room in Washington. In general, I look forward to visiting your country.

Q: You co-chair, together with your Russian counterpart, the Policy Steering Working Group of the U.S.-Russian Presidential Commission. What does your group do? What results would you like to achieve?

Holder: The work of this Group is very important. It was created by our two Presidents and I think it demonstrates the commitment of our countries to improving rule of law. There is everything here – from our approach to common pleas to prison administration and the operation of our criminal justice systems.

In fact, we have set very wide bounds for our discussion, for issues that need to be discussed. But actually, of course, it will be about sharing our experiences, a review of best practices. What do we do here in the United States that can be acceptable in Russia? What we ourselves can learn from our Russian counterparts? What works successfully in your legal system, in Russia, and what could we use here in the United States? It is a very forthright exchange of views and statement of our positions, and a good opportunity to consider what we do and how we do it. Thus, I think it will be very useful.

Q: I would like to point out a topic that cannot be ignored, that is of concern to the Russian public. I am talking about the fate of adopted Russian children in the United States. Most of them are happy in their American families, but there are cases of child abuse and sometimes even of their tragic deaths. There is a feeling in Russia that U.S. courts demonstrate certain leniency to American adoptive parents who are guilty of their children’s deaths. I’d like to ask you, as a father and Attorney General, to take under your personal control all cases of unjustifiably mild sentences of the parents who are guilty of their children’s deaths.

Holder: I’ve discussed this topic with your government officials over the past years. As you say, the overwhelming majority of Russian children who are brought to the United States, meet here the best treatment. But there are exceptions. One of the questions, on which I am trying to focus as Attorney General, is the general attitude to children. So that people capable of doing harm to a child bear responsibility. We are very concerned about the cases you have mentioned. We are trying to track them and take measures so that any person who is doing harm to a child – I mean Russian children here – will be brought to account and meted out adequate punishment.

Q: I would like to touch upon one more question that causes a natural interest in Russia. It is the trial of the Russian businessman Bout that took place here. The court passed a judgment. I’d rather refrain from commenting on it. I’ve got a different question: If after all appeals, Bout is convicted, what is your personal attitude to his serving his term in Russia? What legal basis, in your opinion, could be found for this?

Holder: We have agreements with other countries, which allow convicts to serve their sentences in their countries, but only if there is such an agreement. If we had a request from Russia asking permission for Mr. Bout to serve his sentence in his country, we would consider it; given that we have such a request.

Q:  You have been your country’s main lawyer for more than three years now.  I would like to ask you to tell me what you view as your personal achievements, what has failed to pan out well, and what else you would like to accomplish during your time in office?

Holder: These three years have been interesting.  We tried to focus on four areas: national security, violent crime prevention, prosecution of financial crimes, and protection of the most vulnerable citizens of our country.  In my opinion, we did a good job in all four areas.

There have been failures; I was not successful in everything.  I wanted to prosecute people who attacked New York on September 11, 2001, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others.  I wanted them to be tried in New York.  But that did not happen.  They will be tried in Guantanamo.

But on the whole, I guess we put the time we had to good use.  And in the remaining time as Attorney General, I want to do the same: ensure that Americans are secure and that law and order are observed.

Q:  In this office you have portraits of people close to you professionally.  If, however, you were to choose from among people from American history or world history, those who are your ideal people, whose example would you like to follow?

Holder: I guess I would choose a portrait of Abraham Lincoln.  He is our greatest president, a man who transformed our country, put an end to slavery, prevented the country’s disintegration, and led America to where we could respect laws.  Martin Luther King is another man who has changed American society.  Who gave his life for that, just like Lincoln.  Who carried a vision of America as it could be.  Who called the nation to correspond to the very best that it had. And who achieved success.  I think that I would hang the portraits of those two people on my wall.

Q:  On August 28, 1963, when you were 12, Martin Luther King organized a March for Labor and Freedom here in Washington.  From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial he spoke his famous words “I have a dream.” And what is your dream?

Holder: You know it is not so much different from the one that Dr. King had.  I hope that we as a nation, the American people, will come to judge a person based on their abilities, without bias toward their gender or ethnicity, so that we would be judged based on the good we can do for our people.  King had great faith in the American people, in our nation.  And I do too.  We have achieved a lot, but we still have much work ahead of us.