Obama doesn't want to look back, but Attorney General Eric Holder may probe Bush-era torture anyway.
From the magazine issue dated Jul 20, 2009
It's the morning after Independence Day, and Eric Holder Jr. is feeling the weight of history. The night before, he'd stood on the roof of the White House alongside the president of the
Alone among cabinet officers, attorneys general are partisan appointees expected to rise above partisanship. All struggle to find a happy medium between loyalty and independence. Few succeed. At one extreme looms Alberto Gonzales, who allowed the Justice Department to be run like Tammany Hall. At the other is Janet Reno, whose righteousness and folksy eccentricities marginalized her within the
These are not just the philosophical musings of a new attorney general. Holder, 58, may be on the verge of asserting his independence in a profound way. Four knowledgeable sources tell NEWSWEEK that he is now leaning toward appointing a prosecutor to investigate the Bush administration's brutal interrogation practices, something the president has been reluctant to do. While no final decision has been made, an announcement could come in a matter of weeks, say these sources, who decline to be identified discussing a sensitive law-enforcement matter. Such a decision would roil the country, would likely plunge
Holder is not a natural renegade. His first instinct is to shy away from confrontation, to search for common ground. If he disagrees with you, he's likely to compliment you first before staking out an opposing position. "Now, you see, that's interesting," he'll begin, gently. As a trial judge in
When Holder and his wife, Sharon Malone, glide into a dinner party they change the atmosphere. In a town famous for its drabness, they're an attractive, poised, and uncommonly elegant pair—not unlike the new first couple. But they're also a study in contrasts. Holder is disarmingly grounded, with none of the false humility that usually signals vanity in a
Malone traces many of their differences to their divergent upbringings. "His parents are from the
As we walk up 24th on a recent Saturday, Holder describes for me a happy and largely drama-free childhood. The family was comfortable enough. His father, Eric Sr., was in real estate and owned a few small buildings in
Holder doesn't dispute the idea that his happy upbringing has led to a generally sunny view of the world. "I grew up in a stable neighborhood in a stable, two-parent family, and I never really saw the reality of racism or felt the insecurity that comes with it," he says. "That edge that
The name of the fugitive financier pardoned—with Holder's blessing—at the tail end of the
When I ask Malone the inevitable questions about Rich, she looks pained. "It was awful; it was a terrible time," she says. But she also casts the episode as a lesson about character, arguing that her husband's trusting nature was exploited by Rich's conniving lawyers. "Eric sees himself as the nice guy. In a lot of ways that's a good thing. He's always saying, 'You get more out of people with kindness than meanness.' But when he leaves the 'nice guy' behind, that's when he's strongest."
Any White House tests an attorney general's strength. But one run by Rahm Emanuel requires a particular brand of fortitude. A legendary enforcer of presidential will, Emanuel relentlessly tries to anticipate political threats that could harm his boss. He hates surprises. That makes the Justice Department, with its independent mandate, an inherently nervous-making place for Emanuel. During the first
One of his main interlocutors back then was Holder. With
Holder began to review those policies in April. As he pored over reports and listened to briefings, he became increasingly troubled. There were startling indications that some interrogators had gone far beyond what had been authorized in the legal opinions issued by the Justice Department, which were themselves controversial. He told one intimate that what he saw "turned my stomach."
It was soon clear to Holder that he might have to launch an investigation to determine whether crimes were committed under the Bush administration and prosecutions warranted. The obstacles were obvious. For a new administration to reach back and investigate its predecessor is rare, if not unprecedented. After having been deeply involved in the decision to authorize Ken Starr to investigate Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, Holder well knew how politicized things could get. He worried about the impact on the CIA, whose operatives would be at the center of any probe. And he could clearly read the signals coming out of the White House. President Obama had already deflected the left wing of his party and human-rights organizations by saying, "We should be looking forward and not backwards" when it came to Bush-era abuses.
Still, Holder couldn't shake what he had learned in reports about the treatment of prisoners at the CIA's "black sites." If the public knew the details, he and his aides figured, there would be a groundswell of support for an independent probe. He raised with his staff the possibility of appointing a prosecutor. According to three sources familiar with the process, they discussed several potential choices and the criteria for such a sensitive investigation. Holder was looking for someone with "gravitas and grit," according to one of these sources, all of whom declined to be named. At one point, an aide joked that Holder might need to clone Patrick Fitzgerald, the hard-charging, independent-minded
On April 15 the attorney general traveled to
Holder and his aides thought they'd been losing the internal battle. What they didn't know was that, at that very moment, Obama was staging a mock debate in Emanuel's office in order to come to a final decision. In his address to the cadets, Holder cited George Washington's admonition at the
Holder and his team celebrated quietly, and waited for national outrage to build. But they'd miscalculated. The memos had already received such public notoriety that the new details in them did not shock many people. (Even the revelation, a few days later, that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and another detainee had been waterboarded hundreds of times did not drastically alter the contours of the story.) And the White House certainly did its part to head off further controversy. On the Sunday after the memos were revealed, Emanuel appeared on This Week With George Stephanopoulos and declared that there would be no prosecutions of CIA operatives who had acted in good faith with the guidance they were given. In his statement announcing the release of the memos, Obama said, "This is a time for reflection, not retribution." (Throughout, however, he has been careful to say that the final decision is the attorney general's to make.)
Emanuel and other administration officials could see that the politics of national security was turning against them. When I interviewed a senior White House official in early April, he remarked that Republicans had figured out that they could attack Obama on these issues essentially free of cost. "The genius of the Obama presidency so far has been an ability to keep social issues off the docket," he said. "But now the Republicans have found their dream…issue and they have nothing to lose."
Emanuel's response to the torture memos should not have surprised Holder. In the months since the inauguration, the relationship between the Justice Department and the White House had been marred by surprising tension and acrimony. A certain amount of friction is inherent in the relationship, even healthy. But in the Obama administration the bad blood between the camps has at times been striking. The first detonation occurred in only the third week of the administration, soon after a Justice lawyer walked into a courtroom in
Other missteps were made directly by Holder. Early on, he gave a speech on race relations in honor of Black History Month. He used the infelicitous phrase "nation of cowards" to describe the hair trigger that Americans are on when it comes to race. The quote churned through the cable conversation for a couple of news cycles and caused significant heartburn at the White House; Holder had not vetted the language with his staff. A few weeks later, he told reporters he planned to push for reinstating the ban on assault weapons, which had expired in 2004. He was simply repeating a position that Obama had taken on numerous occasions during the campaign, but at a time when the White House was desperate to win over pro-gun moderate Democrats in Congress. "It's not what we wanted to talk about," said one annoyed White House official, who declined to be identified criticizing the attorney general.
The miscues began to reinforce a narrative that Justice has had a hard time shaking. White House officials have complained that Holder and his staff are not sufficiently attuned to their political needs. Holder is well liked inside the department. His relaxed, unpretentious style—on a flight to Rome in May for a meeting of justice ministers, he popped out of his cabin with his iPod on, mimicking Bobby Darin performing "Beyond the Sea"—has bred tremendous loyalty among his personal staff. But that staff is largely made up of veteran prosecutors and lawyers whom Holder has known and worked with for years. They do not see the president's political fortunes as their primary concern. Among some White House officials there is a not-too-subtle undertone suggesting that Holder has "overlearned the lessons of Marc Rich," as one administration official said to me.
The tensions came to a head in June. By then, Congress was in full revolt over the prospect of Gitmo detainees being transferred to the
Especially galling was the fact that the White House then asked Holder to go up to the Hill that evening to meet with Senate Democrats and bless the deal. Holder declined—a snub in the delicate dance of
Holder is clearly not looking to have a contentious relationship with the White House. It's not his nature, and he knows it's not smart politics. His desire to get along has proved useful in his career before, and may now. Emanuel attributes any early problems to the fact that "everyone was getting their sea legs," and insists things have been patched up. "It's not like we're all sitting around singing 'Kumbaya,' " he says, but he insists that Obama got in Holder exactly what he wanted: "a strong, independent leader."
There's an obvious affinity between Holder and the man who appointed him to be the first black attorney general of the
The next few weeks, though, could test Holder's confidence. After the prospect of torture investigations seemed to lose momentum in April, the attorney general and his aides turned to other pressing issues. They were preoccupied with Gitmo, developing a hugely complex new set of detention and prosecution policies, and putting out the daily fires that go along with running a 110,000-person department. The regular meetings Holder's team had been having on the torture question died down. Some aides began to wonder whether the idea of appointing a prosecutor was off the table.
But in late June Holder asked an aide for a copy of the CIA inspector general's thick classified report on interrogation abuses. He cleared his schedule and, over two days, holed up alone in his Justice Depart ment office, immersed himself in what Dick Cheney once referred to as "the dark side." He read the report twice, the first time as a lawyer, looking for evidence and instances of transgressions that might call for prosecution. The second time, he started to absorb what he was reading at a more emotional level. He was "shocked and saddened," he told a friend, by what government servants were alleged to have done in
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs