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Eric Holder’s Complex Legacy: Voting Rights Advocate, Enemy of Press Freedom, Friend of Wall Street

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Attorney General Eric Holder announced his plan to resign Thursday after nearly six years as head of the Justice Department. He will remain in office until a successor is nominated and confirmed. Assessments of Holder’s legacy as attorney general have been mixed. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund hailed Holder as one of the finest attorneys general in the nation’s history in part for his role in transforming the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department and his leadership on voting rights. Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union criticized Holder’s record on national security issues. The ACLU notes that during Holder’s time in office, the Justice Department approved the drone killing of an American in Yemen, approved the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance programs, failed to prosecute any Bush administration officials for torture, and presided over more leak prosecutions than all previous Justice Departments combined. We speak to Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson, Robert Weissman of Public Citizen, Leslie Proll of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Baher Azmy of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Attorney General Eric Holder announced his plan to resign Thursday after nearly six years as head of the Justice Department. He’ll remain in office until a successor is nominated and confirmed. Holder spoke on Thursday at the White House.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: Over the last six years, our administration, your administration, has made historic gains in realizing the principles of the founding documents and fought to protect the most sacred of American rights—the right to vote. We have begun to realize the promise of equality for our LGBT brothers and sisters and their families. We have begun to significantly reform our criminal justice system and reconnect those who bravely serve in law enforcement with the communities that they protect. We have kept faith with our belief in the power of the greatest judicial system the world has ever known to fairly and effectively adjudicate any cases that are brought before it, including those that involve the security of the nation that we both love so dearly. We have taken steps to protect the environment and make more fair the rules by which our commercial enterprises operate. And we have held accountable those who would harm the American people either through violent means or the misuse of economic or political power.

AMY GOODMAN: Assessments of Eric Holder’s legacy as attorney general have been mixed. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund hailed Holder as one of the finest attorneys general in United States history, in part for his role in transforming the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department and his leadership on voting rights.

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union criticized Holder’s record on national security issues. The ACLU notes, during Holder’s time in office, the Justice Department approved the drone killing of an American in Yemen, approved the NSA’s mass surveillance programs, failed to prosecute any Bush administration officials for torture, and presided over more leak prosecutions than all previous Justice Departments combined.

Today we host a roundtable discussion looking at Eric Holder’s record and legacy. Joining us from Washington, D.C., Rob Weissman, president of Public Citizen; Leslie Proll, Washington director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; and Michael Eric Dyson, University Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University. Here in New York, Baher Azmy is with us, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Let’s begin in Washington, D.C. Let’s go to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Leslie Proll, your assessment of Eric Holder’s record? And by the way, were you surprised by his announcement yesterday?

LESLIE PROLL: Well, I was surprised that it happened yesterday. I think there have been rumors about his impending departure for some time now, and I think he himself had said that he was going to wait until the November election. So I think we were taken a little bit off guard in terms of the actual day that it happened, but we have expected this for some time now.

AMY GOODMAN: So talk about his record. Talk about Eric Holder’s record and your assessment of it.

LESLIE PROLL: Sure. I mean, we think that he will go down in the history books as one of the nation’s finest and most extraordinary attorney generals. I mean, he’s going to be right up there alongside Bobby Kennedy. And, you know, it’s not only for his aggressive enforcement of civil rights cases, but he has shown commitment and vision and courage in the way that he has used the platform of his office to really advance the national conversation on race. And I think when his legacy is brought out, that that is really what people are going to remember about him. He was unafraid to talk about race in this country. And that, I think, is what he will be remembered for most.

AMY GOODMAN: On Thursday, President Obama applauded Eric Holder for his work combating financial fraud.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: He’s helped safeguard our markets from manipulation and consumers from financial fraud. Since 2009, the Justice Department has brought more than 60 cases against financial institutions and won some of the largest settlements in history for practices related to the financial crisis, recovering $85 billion, much of it returned to ordinary Americans who were badly hurt.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s President Obama hailing the record of Eric Holder, who announced his resignation yesterday, though it might well be a long time before he leaves, because a replacement will have to be approved. Rob Weissman of Public Citizen, your response?

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Well, I think that Eric Holder’s record in the area of financial fraud and holding corporate criminals accountable is really radically different than his record in the area of civil rights and voting rights. In this area, he has failed utterly. No one has been held accountable for the Wall Street crash, none of the Wall Street executives, none of the Wall Street firms, for widespread financial misdeeds that led to the worst recession we’ve faced in 70 years, tens of millions of people being thrown out of work, millions of people being thrown out of their homes. There was basically immunity. And in fact, when the Department of Justice under Eric Holder found evidence of large financial firms engaging in epic-level money laundering on behalf of narcotraffickers and countries the U.S. government considers to be enemies, it still decided not to criminally prosecute them, on the grounds that they were too big to fail, or, as it became known, too big to jail. Essentially, a decision was taken that if you are a financial institution and you become big enough and powerful enough, you are above the criminal law. And unfortunately, that, too, is going to be a major part of Eric Holder’s legacy.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Michael Eric Dyson, your assessment of the attorney general?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, I agree with Attorney Proll. I think he’s one of the most extraordinary attorney generals in the history of this nation. By the time he finishes, he may be the third-longest-serving attorney general ever. He has weathered the storm of an enormous racial backlash against black people in power at the top. He is arguably the second-most-powerful black person in the history of American politics after the president himself. So this is a man who was a proxy for the president in many ways, in terms of the symbolic representation of black power and the way in which—or American power in a black man, I should say—and the way in which that has been responded to by such vicious and acrimonious, if you will, articulations by people in the Senate, people who are questioning the attorney general, by politicians who felt open season on him. And as a result of that, when we look at his record, we’ve got to put it in the context of the abstract versus the real, the abstract versus what’s achievable, in a similar vein that had Barack Obama come into office and allowed the financial institutions of America to fail, you can’t overcome that headline, “First Black—Nation’s First Black President Allows the Financial Institutions to Fail.” There’s nothing that we can ever do or say that would have counteracted or countervailed that particular reality and that headline.

And Eric Holder, look, we’re not saying he’s perfect at all, because no attorney general or politician is. But what we’re saying, in the light of what we did, if you’re not alive, you can’t be worried about being sued. If you’re not alive, you can’t worry about financial malfeasance. So, if you’re in prison or in jail, disproportionately, and you happen to be an ordinary citizen, those things are really incredibly important. So, while—yes, get the criminals who have continued financial malfeasance in this country. But what he’s done for the criminal justice system, what he’s done for sentencing, what he’s done for mandatory sentencing, what he’s done for racial profiling, what he’s done to combat police brutality, what he’s done to say that the American Voting Rights Act should be protected, and his, I think, creative use of different aspects of, you know, different sections, when others were gutted by the Supreme Court, has to be acknowledged. And my colleagues on the left sometimes neglect what is important to the masses and millions of people who were never under the purview even of the white left to be concerned about some of the issues that African-American people and Latino people and many others, religious and ethnic minorities, have been concerned about. I think, in that case, he will stand tall in the history of American jurisprudence, and certainly as one of the great attorneys general of all time.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to comments President Obama made about Eric Holder’s record on counterterrorism.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: He’s worked side by side with our intelligence community and the Department of Homeland Security to keep us safe from terrorist attacks and to counter violent extremism. On his watch, federal courts have successfully prosecuted hundreds of terror cases, proving that the world’s finest justice system is fully capable of delivering justice for the world’s most wanted terrorists.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s President Obama talking about Eric Holder. Baher Azmy, also with us, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has been involved in a number of major national security lawsuits against the Department of Justice. Your response to his overall record and what President Obama said?

BAHER AZMY: Well, regarding the intersection of national security and civil rights, I think he’s had a very troubling legacy, most fundamentally by extending and solidifying the sort of wartime architecture and narrative into our legal system. And so, in some ways, he’s been an extension of the Bush administration’s Justice Department around indefinite detention at Guantánamo, the warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens, and in some areas has even gone farther, around the targeting of journalists who seek to expose illegal federal government misconduct and the use of targeted killing practices to execute U.S. citizens without due process.

AMY GOODMAN: Was there an alternative?

BAHER AZMY: Certainly there was an alternative. The alternative, I think, had been articulated fundamentally by President Obama—or candidate Obama, and in rolling back some of the excesses and rejecting the false choice between national security and civil rights. But that alternative wasn’t pursued. In fact, we sort of doubled down. And the danger, of course, is now that the sort of Bush administration practices around national security are not exceptional anymore, they have been solidified. There has been seepage and strengthening of the ties between wartime and law. And that’s going to take a long time to undo.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue with this discussion after break. Baher Azmy with us from the Center for Constitutional Rights; Rob Weissman, president of Public Citizen; Michael Eric Dyson, professor at Georgetown University; and Leslie Proll, with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: When speaking at the NAACP convention last year, Attorney General Eric Holder drew parallels between his own experiences as an African-American male and those of Trayvon Martin, when he recalled times in his life when he himself was racially profiled.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: The news of Trayvon Martin’s death last year and the discussions that have taken place since then reminded me of my father’s words so many years ago. And they brought me back to a number of experiences that I had as a young man—when I was pulled over twice and my car searched on the New Jersey Turnpike, when I’m sure I wasn’t speeding, or when I was stopped by a police officer while simply running to catch a movie at night in Georgetown in Washington, D.C. I was, at the time of that last incident, a federal prosecutor. Trayvon’s death last spring caused me to sit down to have a conversation with my own 15-year-old son, like my dad did with me. This was a father-son tradition I hoped would not need to be handed down.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Eric Holder. Michael Eric Dyson, University Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University, your response to what he said, but also what our guests have said so far in concern about, on the one hand, really taking on issues of racial profiling, but when it comes to, for example, U.S. citizens targeted for drone strikes, his record there?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Yeah, there’s no question that Eric Holder’s appeal to the existential, to the personal, added a weight, a heft, a gravitas, to his statements and also personal testimony, to suggest that there is a reasonable way in which one could highlight, underscore and embrace the issue of race while at the same time talking about principles that could be universally applied. I think when he spoke before the NAACP, he did the nation a great service. He suggested that these citizens of color, who happen to be African-American, are worthy of the respect of the state not to be viciously or arbitrarily targeted by them. The protection and service that should be rendered by police should also be extended to African-American, Latino, poor white people and all others equally. Equal treatment under the law and equal justice, of course, is extraordinarily important. So I think Eric Holder’s record in that regard will stand the test of time.

Of course, we talk about the conflicts, the contradictions and broader conceptions of American democracy in its application. And in that case, whereas Eric Holder has much more direct control over events, forces and realities within the context of the Department of Justice, when we’re talking about the other issues that my colleagues have alluded to, then you’re talking about the interaction between the president of the United States of America and the Justice Department. Then you’re talking about the bailiwick being extraordinarily expanded. And in that case, Eric Holder alone can’t shoulder the burden of that. Are there conflicts and contradictions? To be sure. But in terms of ascribing, you know, responsibility, I think that’s a much more muddy kind of context.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me play for you Attorney General Eric Holder—this was in 2012 at Northwestern University Law School—arguing the Obama administration had the right to kill U.S. citizens who belong to al-Qaeda or associated forces.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: Some have argued that the president is required to get permission from a federal court before taking action against a United States citizen who is a senior operational leader of al-Qaeda or associated forces. This is simply not accurate. Due process and judicial process are not one and the same, particularly when it comes to national security. The Constitution guarantees due process. It does not guarantee judicial process.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Eric Holder. Professor Dyson?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Right. Well, look, you know, he’s obviously supplying judicial predicate for what he felt was a righteous response by the president. There are those of us, of course, who severely and strongly disagree with that and who would suggest that there are other alternatives available. But as a Justice Department official, as the head law giver, so to speak, or law keeper, then Eric Holder’s role is one that’s divided. He is responsible to the broader American public, which is why the Department of Justice, in particular the Attorney General’s Office, is perhaps the most independent of Cabinet member—Cabinet-level appointments, and, on the other hand, serving at the pleasure of the president of the United States of America. So that’s an internal contradiction that certainly is not going to be resolved by Eric Holder.

Finally, in terms of the actual practice, we know that being involved in the so-called war on terror, which does continue the language of the Bush administration, these are very, very new times. And discerning the difference between traditional conceptions of war, where combatants are easily established, versus the war of, quote, “terror,” or should I say, quote, “the war on terror,” where the combatants are not easily distinguishable and vicious acts have been perpetrated even in the name of those who have legitimate gripes and complaints about the practices of the United States of America or other legally established governments, leads us into very, very new terrain. And, of course, mistakes will be made. And the reality is, we’ve got to continue to grapple with that. But I think his underlying principle of not, you know, targeting people because of their ethnicity, their race, their religious orientation is a huge move forward in terms of the Islamophobia that has prevailed in much of this war.

AMY GOODMAN: Baher Azmy of the Center for Constitutional Rights?

BAHER AZMY: Yes, well, as someone who does believe that the president needs some judicial review before executing U.S. citizens, and as a lawyer, it was fairly shocking to hear the attorney general say—in a law school audience, particularly—that due process does not require judicial process. The essence of due process for hundreds of years is that executive officials do not get to themselves decide how to deprive individuals of rights and that the judiciary does have to be involved. But that analysis was one that gave legal cover to policy decisions of the executive branch, and therefore, you know, collapsed the distinction between war and the Constitution in the way, in a troubling way, that the prior Justice Department had. And what’s disappointing, I think, is that his great empathy and thoughtfulness about the role of race in this country and state violence in this country, I would have hoped could have informed the use of war and state violence against detainees in Guantánamo, innocent civilians killed by drone strikes abroad, and the simple perpetuation of raw executive power under legal cover.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Eric Holder talking about Robert Kennedy. This was yesterday at the White House when he announced his resignation. Again, Eric Holder has announced his resignation, but he will probably serve for quite some time, because not only would a replacement have to be nominated, but he would have to be approved by Congress. This is Eric Holder.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: I have loved the Department of Justice ever since as a young boy I watched Robert Kennedy prove during the civil rights movement how the department can and must always be a force for that which is right. I hope that I have done honor to the faith that you have placed in me, Mr. President, and to the legacy of all those who have served before me.

AMY GOODMAN: Leslie Proll, talk about the significance of these comparisons and the particular case, as you’ve been involved in so many, particularly in the South and where you come from in Alabama, that you will remember Eric Holder for.

LESLIE PROLL: Sure. I think that Eric Holder viewed Robert Kennedy as his role model, and that was kind of the guiding light for his tenure in the department. And with Eric Holder, it was very personal for him, this connection to Robert Kennedy. Not many people know this, but Eric Holder’s sister-in-law was one of the students who desegregated the University of Alabama. Her name was Vivian Malone. And she’s one of the two students who Governor George Wallace blocked in the schoolhouse door from entering the campus under a court order to desegregate that school. And the Justice Department, under the leadership of Robert Kennedy, was actually the agency that asked Governor Wallace to step aside and allow the students to enter into the campus, and it was Robert Kennedy who had sent his civil rights deputies, Nicholas Katzenbach, in particular, who negotiated the entrance of Eric Holder’s sister-in-law into that university. And that is a pivotal moment in civil rights history. And I have to think that he remembered that every day of his tenure. And, you know, he said that he had a painting of Robert Kennedy in his office. And I think that was very personal for him, because his family, more than most, understood the role of the Justice Department and its Civil Rights Division in enforcing civil rights laws.

And he certainly carried that out with respect to a host of areas. I mean, certainly, he began his remarks yesterday in talking about his legacy, in mentioning voting rights. And certainly this is something that he will be remembered for. He defended the Voting Rights Act when it was under attack in the courts, essentially the constitutionality of it. His lawyers defended that act in federal courts. And then, when the Supreme Court struck down a key section of that act, he would not retreat. He said, “I am going to use the other provisions of the act in order to enforce the Voting Rights Act.” And sure enough, he filed lawsuits right away after that decision in Texas and North Carolina. And in these last three weeks, the Legal Defense Fund has been working side by side with his lawyers in the Texas litigation. And so, he has been unabashed and unafraid to use the civil rights laws where he could, and that is going to be, you know, a huge part of his legacy, that he was willing to aggressively enforce these laws when it comes to fair housing, fair lending, education, desegregation, employment discrimination.

And certainly in the area—as the professor said, in the area of criminal justice reform, that is going to be another key legacy of his. He used the power of his position to talk about the unfairness of mandatory minimums and to take steps, through policy and through telling his prosecutors not to overcharge when there is a nonviolent drug offender and to take steps to talk about how are we as a country going to help people who are exiting from confinement and dealing with the collateral consequences, such as finding employment and finding housing. He chaired a 20-agency inter-agency task force just devoted to re-entry. Again, that is going to be another part of his legacy.

AMY GOODMAN: Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee a year ago, Eric Holder suggested that some banks are too big to jail.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: I am concerned that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that if you do prosecute, if you do bring a criminal charge, it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy. And I think that is a function of the fact that some of these institutions have become too large. Again, I’m not talking about HSBC; this is just a more general comment. I think it has an inhibiting influence—impact on our ability to bring resolutions that I think would be more appropriate.

AMY GOODMAN: In May, Eric Holder sought to clarify the Department of Justice’s position on prosecuting financial fraud.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: Why would I be anyplace other than right here, right now, you know, to talk to the people in this area who are deserving of our attention and who we want to help as best we can? And we also want to listen. That’s the main part of this trip. We want to listen to hear about the issues that you all are dealing with to see are there ways in which we can help.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Eric Holder in Ferguson, which I want to get to in a moment, very unusual for an attorney general to make that trip. But, Rob Weissman, on that issue of too large to fail?

ROBERT WEISSMAN: Yeah, again, I think that there’s just a totally different story here. And I think I should say, you know, that his record in civil rights and voting rights is impressive, and it’s important, and it will be a defining element of his legacy, and I think, as Leslie said, not just what he did, but what he said. And it was really unusual, unfortunately unusual, not just for an attorney general, but really for any Cabinet official, to speak aggressively and openly and honestly about race, or really about much else, and use their power to try to change a national conversation. I think he gets tons of credit for that.

However, in the area, again, of financial fraud and holding corporate criminals accountable, it’s a really different story. And there was a decision made—and, by the way, this is not a decision that belongs to anybody else except Eric Holder. Eric Holder and his top lieutenants decided not to prosecute individuals, the CEOs and other executives, on Wall Street responsible for the crash and other wrongdoing, and not to seriously go after the institutions and hold them criminally accountable. And the purported rationale for that was what he said in the first clip, that the businesses had grown so large that there might be some overall impact on the national or global economy, if they were criminally prosecuted. So what evolved was this idea of too big to jail. These companies had become so big that they couldn’t become—they couldn’t be criminally prosecuted. That is turning every element of criminal justice upside down. It means if you become, as a company, so large and powerful, you rise above the criminal law. Due to your size and power, you become immune from criminal prosecution. It’s really perverse. Now, maybe it’s true. But then, if that’s true, then you’ve got to say the institutions are too big to exist and try to break them up, something that actually is within the authority of the Department of Justice. And there was no hint of that from Eric Holder’s DOJ.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Michael Eric Dyson, your response?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: You know, in the abstract, I absolutely agree with my colleague, I mean, when we look at the kind of malfeasance and the kind of, you know, corruption that really was pervasive in the entire infrastructure. But a couple things. First of all, you know, the people who took the brunt of the mortgage crisis happened to be African-American people. The greatest bleed-off of black wealth in the history of this nation occurred there. So, if anybody is invested in trying to recoup some of that, it would be those people, and to redound to them significantly. The redistributive mechanism that might restore some of the capital to those folk is, again, of course, never the interest of many of my colleagues who are concerned about it. They just want to put in jail the CEOs and the others who did all this stuff, but they’re not really concerned about the redistributive mechanism that allows these people to regain, because even if you put those guys in jail, the people at the bottom continue to suffer, and there’s no direct response to that, number one.

Number two, if we’re going to talk about this in the actual political context, the kind of racial realpolitik that exists, let’s be real. If President Barack Obama can’t be seen as too gruffly treating white Americans vis-à-vis the Skip Gates situation, where he simply said that the policeman was acting stupidly—the uproar on that was incredible—what do you think will happen then if Eric Holder, as the first African-American attorney general, is seen to be going after mostly white CEOs and other corporate titans within the economic infrastructure? Now, it sounds great, on the one hand, because it is an acknowledgment of our adherence to rational principles of the defense of the poor and vulnerable, but in the real political context within which we exist, I think you’re underestimating the pervasive character of race, how it has shaped the very lens through which we perceive these issues. And unfortunately, the optics on black men at the top—Barack Obama and Eric Holder—exercising a certain kind of aggressive posture toward these particular entities or individuals is being underestimated here. Barack Obama, on the one hand, has receded in light of that kind of vicious racial reaction. Eric Holder has taken it by its tail and said, “At certain significant points, I’m going to intervene.” To ask him to do the whole thing and to overcome an entire history of structural and perceptual inequalities that exist, I think is just asking too much.

AMY GOODMAN: Rob Weissman, too much?

ROBERT WEISSMAN: No, I mean, I think the world of Professor Dyson, but I strongly disagree with this. First of all, if you let these criminals get off the hook, they’re going to do it again. So if you care about protecting the communities, you’ve got to hold them accountable. It’s not an abstract principle. It has a very real application. Exactly as he said, the crisis that was induced by these Wall Street executives devastated communities across the country, especially poor and low-income communities across the country. And it’s going to happen again. It’s a certainty it is going to happen again, if we don’t have a change and hold people accountable for what they’re doing. Now, was it impossible for Eric Holder to prosecute these people? No, it wasn’t. Twenty years ago in the savings-and-loan crisis, which cost the country about $500 billion—a ton of money, but nothing compared to the $14 trillion in losses from this crisis—a thousand people want to jail. So, they can be prosecuted. And if you look at what—

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Who was the attorney general then? That’s all I’m asking. I’m saying, who was the attorney general then?

ROBERT WEISSMAN: There was not an African-American attorney general, of course not.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: That’s all I’m saying, brother. All I’m telling you—

ROBERT WEISSMAN: But you can’t say—

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Race makes a difference that we’re underestimating.

ROBERT WEISSMAN: You can’t say—no.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: That’s all I’m saying.

ROBERT WEISSMAN: You can acknowledge that. Of course, he’s faced all kinds of unfairness because he’s an African American in the job. But it doesn’t mean he’s not responsible for doing the job. And in fact, he was more gentle on corporate criminals than any predecessor. So one thing that’s really evolved in the last 15 years, but took off under Eric Holder, was the use of what’s known as deferred and nonprosecution agreements. These are deals with large corporations that have committed criminal acts, but the government says, “We’re not going to criminally prosecute you; we’re going to enter into a nonprosecution agreement. We’re not going to prosecute you. You promise not to do the same thing in the future, and we’re going to let you pay some money and get off.” The government, under Eric Holder, did that 150 times—150 times—which has been done maybe a hundred in history prior to the Obama administration. So there’s been more use of this kind of tactic, to be gentler with corporate criminals, than there has been in the entirety of the Department of Justice history.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. I want to bring in Baher Azmy on the issue of journalists, in specific, not only talking about the crackdown on corporations, but on journalists, the surveillance of, the arrest of, and get response to what is happening right now in this country around voting rights. We’re talking to Rob Weissman, president of Public Citizen; Baher Azmy, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. We also have with us in Washington Professor Michael Eric Dyson, University Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University, and Leslie Proll, Washington director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. In January, during an interview at the University of Virginia, Attorney General Eric Holder ruled out clemency for NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: The notion of clemency was not something that we were willing to consider. But as I said, were he to come back to the United States, enter a plea, we would engage with his lawyers.

DOUGLAS BLACKMON: And presumably that would be a guilty plea to something.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about the life, the legacy of Eric Holder as he announces yesterday that he is resigning as attorney general. Actually, when he actually will step down will be a very interesting question, considering how the kind of logjam there is in Washington right now, the deadlock between Republicans and Democrats. Our guests are Baher Azmy, legal director of Center for Constitutional Rights; Rob Weissman, president of Public Citizen; Michael Eric Dyson, University Professor of Sociology at Georgetown; and Leslie Proll, with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Baher Azmy, the issue of the significance of Snowden and what the U.S. government has done? He in political asylum now in Russia, but wants to come home.

BAHER AZMY: Yeah, so, in general, I think what we’ve seen, in combination with sort of perpetuating illegal federal government practices in the national security area, is, on the other hand, secrecy and protecting government secrets. So, the illegality and the secrecy are braided together. And what’s particularly troubling is, when journalists or other whistleblowers have tried to expose the secrecy, the response has been to crack down in an unprecedented way on journalists, on whistleblowers, by using a fairly odious 1917 law called the Espionage Act, which was explicitly designed to repress dissent during wartime. And I think it’s now clear that Edward Snowden has done a service to this country by exposing deep illegality at the federal government and wide-scale surveillance that the government otherwise tried to keep secret. And I think that he needn’t be punished in the same way as this administration has tried to punish other journalists and whistleblowers, including Julian Assange.

AMY GOODMAN: The phrase, Professor Michael Eric Dyson, most often used in describing Eric Holder and President Obama now is saying that President Obama has presided over more prosecutions of whistleblowers than all presidents in history combined. And, of course, Eric Holder is pivotal to this. Your response?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Yeah, well, just like as Brother Weissman was talking earlier about this, and all of my colleagues, I don’t have any principled disagreement with, in the abstract, the arguments being made. And again here, I can’t defend, as a person who makes a living in part as a journalist and as a public intellectual, any kind of, you know, unjust assault upon the privileges and freedoms that they incur—that they enjoy. So there’s no doubt that there are some contradictions going on here and some fundamentally troubling and disturbing aspects to the legacy. So, I don’t deny that at all.

And I think that in regard to the Snowden tradition, obviously, as attorney general and as president, seeing that the national security under their purview and being privy to information that the rest of the public is not privy to carries its own weight. Of course, the counterargument is that, yeah, well, if you’re going to talk about a sunshine law where we expose, in transparency, all the elements that make up the decisions we make about what gets protected and what doesn’t, in terms of information on national security, then whistleblowers become critical and extremely important. And I understand the argument here vis-à-vis Mr. Snowden and why that’s so troubling to many of us in the American public.

AMY GOODMAN: New York Times's James Risen, who the Obama administration wants to prosecute, and that's in the purview of the Department of Justice, said to Maureen Dowd that President Obama is “the greatest enemy to press freedom in a generation.” Professor Dyson?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Yeah, well, that could turn out to be true. I hope not. But the reality is, is that, look, there are chilling effects in terms of the decisions that have been made vis-à-vis President Obama. So it has to be reckoned with. I’m not here to defend that, and I’m not here to defend anybody’s record across the board, because there will always be lapses and contradictions, some of which are fundamental and some of which are extremely troubling. And so, I think, in this case, again, it is to be acknowledged that we can not only talk about that, we could talk about the master deporter in terms of vis-à-vis the issue of immigration. So, yeah, there are elements here that are extremely troubling and quite disturbing.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happens next? This issue of, yes, he has announced he’s stepping down, he’s wanted to do this for a while, but, in fact, how long do you think, Professor Dyson, he will be staying?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: You know, I think he’s going to be there for a while, because the reality is, you know, we have to put pressure on the president here to say, “Look, choose a person who can carry the water that Eric Holder has carried in so many significant ways.” My colleagues have already indicated some of the lapses and contradictions and the troubling and chilling consequences. But when you look at the overall, you know, you look at box score, when you look at a person’s average—and I’m not dismissing the legitimate critique on any area here—but when you look at the extraordinary work that Eric Holder has done, the good that he has achieved, and the impact on the domestic, you know, and sometimes international sphere, you’ve got to acknowledge that we should have at least another attorney general who will carry that weight forward. And we can’t use the excuse that, hey, you know, the Senate might change, the numbers of Republicans versus Democrats might alter, and as a result of that we should tamp down on some of the edifying fury that Eric Holder has brought to his job. No, I say we go in the opposite direction: We make certain that we carry on the legacy that this man has created. Let’s not subvert it or undermine it by a kind of tepid, lukewarm response to the politics at hand.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. I want to thank Michael Eric Dyson, University Professor of Sociology at Georgetown; Leslie Proll, Washington director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; also Baher Azmy here in New York, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights; and Rob Weissman, president of Public Citizen. Other big news this week, again, the resumption of bombing of Syria and Iraq going after the Islamic State.

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