The walls inside the U.S. Justice Department headquarters are painted with themed murals depicting law and lawlessness (a couple being robbed at gunpoint; a man fleeing a mob into the protective arms of a judge). It dramatically establishes that you’re in a place dedicated to the noble pursuit of American justice. Sitting at a large conference table underneath a mural called Triumphant Justice, Attorney General Eric Holder, the first African-American to hold the position, is cool and relaxed. And he seems a bit tired.
As the man charged with carrying out President Barack Obama’s order to close Guantanamo Bay prison, many weighty issues are keeping him busy these days. The Justice Department is also facing the concern of prisoner abuse under the previous administration, tackling the prosecution of predatory mortgage lenders and trying to change unfair drug sentencing laws, to name a few examples. Despite criticism for either being too reckless or too passive, depending on which side of the aisle is talking, Holder says he’s confident that he and the President are moving in the right direction.
The nation’s top cop spoke with ESSENCE.com about racial disparities in the system, the questions swirling around Guantanamo, and what changes we’ll see in his Justice Department.
ESSENCE.COM: Many African-Americans saw your appointment as an opportunity to really see change in the criminal justice system for us. How do you feel about these expectations from the Black community?
ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: You don’t want to over-promise, and you want people’s expectations to be realistic. And yet, I understand as well. Given the focus in the community on the criminal justice system, with an African-American President and an African-American attorney general, you’d expect to see substantive changes. We’ve started to do exactly that. We’ve put a proposal before Congress that does away with the crack-powder disparity in sentencing. We have within the Justice Department a task force that’s looking at the question of sentencing within the federal system-whether or not it’s fair, or putting the right people in jail for the right periods of time. We’ve only been in office now for four and a half months, but as people start to see what our emphases are going to be when it comes to law enforcement and criminal justice system reform, I think people will understand that we’re serious about that. It’s a primary emphasis for this department and for this President.
ESSENCE.COM: You mentioned ending the “100 to 1” sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, which has led to far longer prison terms for Black drug offenders. Are you looking to lower the sentence for crack to match powder, or is it that you want powder raised to match crack?
HOLDER: We haven’t really talked about the specifics of that. That’s one of the things that we’re going to have to work out with Congress, to figure out what’s the mechanism used to reach that goal. What I can say is that, in the interactions I’ve had with people on the other side of the aisle, people who’d be identified as pretty conservative Republicans, there is a recognition that something’s got to be done. It’s having a negative impact of the ability of law enforcement to be effective. I’m not sure exactly what the mechanism is, or how it will be accomplished, but I think we stand a pretty good chance of getting it done.
ESSENCE.COM: Measures to change this law have come up before, but it seems to always stall.
HOLDER: Well, this is the first time that it’s come from the executive branch, the first time that you’ve had a President and an attorney general say, “This is what we think needs to happen.” When I was under the Clinton administration, we made proposals that would have decreased the disparity. What we’re saying here is that there’s really no law enforcement reason, no chemical basis for the distinction between the two, and we should just eliminate the disparity.
ESSENCE.COM: Is there an effort to target and prosecute crimes in the banking and finance industries? It seems like the people whose mismanagement and fraud led to so many Americans losing their jobs and homes just walked away.
HOLDER: I can’t really comment on pending investigations. What I can say is, to the extent that there is fraud and inappropriate conduct that occurred in connection with the financial collapse, those are the areas that we would be looking at. So I’ll pretty much say that.
ESSENCE.COM: So it’s being investigated, and that’s as much as you can say?
HOLDER: I didn’t say that. I can’t talk about pending investigations, or the lack of an investigation.
ESSENCE: Last month the Senate denied $80 million in funds to close Guantanamo until the administration comes up with a firmer plan for transferring detainees. Given all the questions surrounding Guantanamo detainees, do you think it’s at all unrealistic to close it in a year?
HOLDER: I think the President’s goal is a realistic one, and one that we’ll ultimately meet. The closing of Guantanamo has a lot of positives that flow from it. It’s been used as a recruiting tool by al-Qaeda and extremists who want to do this country harm. It’s alienated us from our allies. What Congress has said is: You need to show us a plan. And we’ll share more information with Congress. I think ultimately, once that information is shared, and given what I think is right about closing Guantanamo, we’ll reach an accommodation with Congress, and the money will be there. It will be a difficult thing to do to get through the 240 people and try them. But I think we can do it by January 2010.
ESSENCE.COM: Regarding interrogation techniques used under the Bush administration, such as waterboarding, what is the likelihood that the Justice Department will investigate officials who authorized these techniques?
HOLDER: The President has said, and I agree, that we don’t want to investigate people who operated with the approval of the Justice Department and who acted consistent with the authorization that was given to them by the Justice Department. But beyond that it’s a question of where the facts, where the law, takes us. No one is above the law, and it really is a question of what happens as time passes and as we become more familiar with the circumstances under which some of these decisions were made.
ESSENCE.COM: So in the event that the facts lead to the conclusion that the law was violated, then action would be taken?
HOLDER: If we were to find that there were in fact violations of the law, and that you’ve had cases that were worthy of investigation and potential prosecution, we would follow the law.
ESSENCE.COM: Last month, the President announced that he would block the release of photos showing prisoner abuse, fearing a backlash against our troops. Opponents argue that transparency is a better model, rather than hide the photos and risking their leak later on. What are your thoughts on that argument?
HOLDER: I’m not concerned about the photos being leaked. I think the President’s concern was a very legitimate one. He spoke to commanders in the field who expressed concern about the impact that the release of these photos might have on the safety of our troops. And I think that argument was a compelling one and was the reason why the President decided not to release them. I think this administration has been very transparent about releasing lots of other information that we could do so in a way that is consistent with our national security and will continue to do that. But our primary responsibility is to protect the American people. I don’t mean there’s a tension between protecting the American people and being transparent following the rule of law, but there are going to be instances where we’re going to have to do things that people might not agree with, but the President’s responsibility and my responsibility is to keep the American people safe and we’re going to do that.