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Will Trump’s AG Pick William Barr Face Questions over Gitmo, Mass Incarceration & NSA Surveillance?

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Senate confirmation hearings begin today for William Barr, President Trump’s nominee for attorney general to replace Jeff Sessions, who was fired in November. Barr served as attorney general for George H.W. Bush from 1991 to 1993. During that time, he was involved in the pardon of six Reagan officials for the Iran-Contra scandal and oversaw the opening of the Guantánamo Bay military prison, which was initially used to indefinitely detain HIV-positive asylum seekers from Haiti. Barr also openly backed mass incarceration at home and helped develop a secret Drug Enforcement Administration program which became a “blueprint” for the National Security Agency’s mass phone surveillance effort. We speak with Vincent Warren, executive director 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: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Senate confirmation hearings begin today for William Barr, President Trump’s nominee for attorney general to replace Jeff Sessions, who was fired in November. Barr served as attorney general for George H.W. Bush from 1991 to ’93. During that time, he was involved in the pardon of six Reagan officials for the Iran-Contra scandal and oversaw the opening of the Guantánamo base military prison, which was initially used to indefinitely detain HIV-positive asylum seekers from Haiti. One federal judge accused the Bush administration of creating an ”HIV prison camp.” Barr openly backed mass incarceration at home, as well. As attorney general, he once wrote the introduction to a report titled “The Case for More Incarceration.”

According to the ACLU, William Barr also helped develop a secret Drug Enforcement Administration program which became a “blueprint” for the National Security Agency’s mass phone surveillance effort. After leaving government, Barr became general counsel at Verizon at a time when the telecom giant was secretly working with the NSA warrantless surveillance program.

Today’s hearing is expected to focus in part on the future of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. According to his prepared remarks, Barr is expected to say it’s “vitally important” Mueller be allowed to complete his investigation. But last year Barr sent an unsolicited memo to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, in June, in which he criticized Mueller’s investigation. He then—and this news has just come out this week—apparently spoke privately with Trump’s attorneys about the memo and his case for protecting executive privilege and executive power.

We’re joined now by Vince Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

It’s good to have you with us, Vince.

VINCENT WARREN: Hi.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what you think needs to happen today, the kinds of questions that William Barr should be asked by the senators.

VINCENT WARREN: Well, Amy, there are two really big overlays here. The first one is around his view of presidential power, Barr’s views of presidential power, and specifically those views that were articulated to the Trump administration—and now, apparently, the Trump lawyers—in an unsolicited memo. I don’t know who writes a memo to the president of the United States saying that the special counsel is overseeing their—overstepping their bounds, but that’s what he did. And that’s important, of course, because, as we know, President Trump is very hot to get himself out of the hot seat, and he’s looking for anybody who will push back on that and perhaps even fire the special counsel. So that’s one part of it.

The other part, I think, is equally as important, and I think that folks need to keep their eye on this. Even if he says the magic words that “I will let the special counsel do his job, I will not fire the special counsel, I will read the report when it comes out,” he’s got a long history of being not only a law-and-order attorney general, but he’s espoused views that expand presidential power not just internationally with respect to, for example, going into the first Iraq War, but also with respect to mass incarceration of hundreds of thousands of people here in the United States, and a very bad track record on the question of asylum, people coming into the United States, as well. So, all of those issues, I think, need to be moved forward.

He was approved, I think, almost unanimously by the Democrats last time he went through this process. He likely will be approved again, unfortunately. But people need to keep their eye on the idea that even if he says the magic words, he’s really bad news for the trajectory that the country is going in now.

AMY GOODMAN: So, in addition to consulting with Trump’s lawyers around how to limit the probe, or whatever it is he talked with them about—I don’t know if he was talking about eliminate it—do you think this would be grounds for recusal?

VINCENT WARREN: I do think it would be grounds for recusal. There’s nothing that prohibits a private citizen from interacting with the president’s lawyers on any matter. It’s an entirely different thing when that private citizen who’s providing the advice then gets nominated for the attorney general slot, because now he’s got a preconceived idea of what he thinks should happen. And at the very least, that should be fully vetted by Congress as he is going through the nominations process.

I also think that depending on what his views are, he might have to step back and recuse himself. He can have a very different opinion than the special counsel, and as long as he’s not implicated, as Jeff Sessions was, which is why Jeff Sessions recused himself, I don’t know that he needs to, but I think it would be wise, in terms of keeping those powers separate, for him to step back and let that process move forward.

AMY GOODMAN: And then the question is how much he will allow to be made public.

VINCENT WARREN: That’s right. And I think he’s also—you know, if he’s in cahoots with the Trump administration about the attorney general process and about the special counsel process, that makes the whole process come together. It is like—sort of like a collusion-type scheme. And that’s really problematic. You just don’t want the attorney general to be the person that’s gaming the entire system, both from the administration side and from the prosecutorial side, if that’s what happened.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about his record, because it’s not only about where he stands on the Mueller probe. I mean, he has a long record around, for example, as you said, mass incarceration. He was involved in the pardon of six Reagan officials for the Iran-Contra scandal. The significance of this, especially in light of the investigations that are going on around Trump and who’s being offered pardons, who’s going to jail?

VINCENT WARREN: Yeah. And, I mean, I think, you know, at some level, his involvement in the pardons, although problematic politically at the time, you know, we’re in a situation where President Trump will pardon almost anybody for anything. It’s almost like these random pardons that he’s giving out like party favors. So, at some level, I don’t expect that Barr will have a huge influence on that, because the president is moving it forward.

What’s more concerning to me, I think, is the question of asylum and immigration. And back in the 1990s, 1991, there was a coup in Haiti that deposed President Aristide, and that Barr was one of the key figures that created the idea of creating detention camps at Guantánamo for HIV Haitians. And you have to remember that tens of thousands of Haitians were fleeing Haiti at the time, as you know, as you’ve reported on and as you’ve been there, coming to Florida seeking asylum. Rather than giving them asylum, they essentially created a two-tier—first of all, they tried to detain them on boats and interdict them. But they also created a—basically, an HIV camp, because a number of people that were coming through were HIV-positive. And he was the chief architect behind that particular program.

AMY GOODMAN: This was the first U.S. prison at Guantánamo.

VINCENT WARREN: The first U.S. prison at Guantánamo. And that prison was closed down by Michael Ratner and the Center for Constitutional Rights through litigation, what we call the first Guantánamo litigation, and we’re trying to close the second prison down, as well.

But the important piece there is that, as an asylum question, William Barr saw people coming from Haiti not as asylees, but largely as people that were threats to both the democratic system and threats to the economy. He’s quoted as saying that “Why would we let all of these Haitians come into the United States, into Florida, so close to the election?” indicating that there’s a political view of this, that these folks that are coming in are largely going to create political havoc for the Republicans in Florida, which was a key state and remains one.

So, the idea now, what we’re looking at, with President Trump’s view of asylum, which is wrong and illegal and seriously problematic, having someone like William Barr, who is an old hand at not only denying people asylum unconstitutionally, but creating illegal structures to detain folks, is going to be really, really problematic. Who knows where that’s going to go?

AMY GOODMAN: On immigration, Vox reports that in 1992, quote, “Barr rolled out a multimillion-dollar plan to beef up security in the San Diego/Tijuana area where crossings were then concentrated. One component of that plan: building a steel fence with the assistance of the Department of Defense. … The San Diego/Tijuana area started a border-wide trend of building physical barriers to prevent crossings in populated areas—funneling immigrants toward the Arizona desert and, more recently, gang-controlled crossings in the Rio Grande Valley.” Again, that from Vox. Vince?

VINCENT WARREN: Yeah, that’s—you know, we’re looking at someone who’s essentially the legal architect of some of the problems that we have right now. You know, the idea where we’re having a—the whole government is partially shut down because of a border wall question, and William Barr was able to move forward and to create a wall, a deterrent wall in the San Diego area, almost 20 years ago. I expect that if he remained—

AMY GOODMAN: “Barring” people from crossing.

VINCENT WARREN: Barring people from—barring people from crossing over into the United States—

AMY GOODMAN: So to speak.

VINCENT WARREN: —as it were. And I suspect that if he is appointed as attorney general in this context, we’re going to see much more aggressive moves around questions of walls, much more—much more problematic rhetoric about how people come in and who doesn’t come in, and a confusion between people that are coming in for immigration purposes, people that are coming in for asylum purposes and people that are fleeing persecution.

AMY GOODMAN: The ACLU has called Barr the “godfather of the NSA’s bulk data collection program,” again, known for helping to develop the secret program which became a “blueprint” for the NSA’s mass phone surveillance effort. After leaving government, he becomes general counsel of Verizon, at a time when the telecom giant was secretly working with the NSA warrantless surveillance program.

VINCENT WARREN: Yeah. You know, for all of the talk about transparency that he’s going to do today, we have to remember that he was, with his corporate hat on, ushering in an era in which corporations and the government colluded to spy on tens of thousands, if not millions, of people through corporate networks. He’s someone that I think views mass surveillance, mass incarceration, mass denials of asylum as an operative law enforcement tool. I don’t think that he’s found a sweeping program that he hasn’t liked.

And he seems very not concerned at all with the effect on innocent people, with the idea of our civil liberties to be free from that type of secret surveillance, to be free from being able to be thrown into camps, to be free from being pushed back to our former country when we’re seeking asylum. He doesn’t really care about any of that stuff. All he really cares about is the massive power of the government to be able to sweep people into huge boxes and sort of weed out the bad folks later.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, the Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to the legality of Trump’s decision to name Matthew Whitaker acting attorney general, and the Democrats are dealing with this, as well. As long as someone isn’t put in permanently, Whitaker is there.

VINCENT WARREN: Yeah, and the controversy there is that it was essentially a back-pocket appointment that didn’t go through constitutional muster, that there are no provisions to allow that to happen. And I think, you know, Whitaker’s—now with Barr in play, that issue might become moot relatively quickly. But I think it goes to the idea that, number one, this administration has no idea what it’s doing legally; number two, that they will move forward with friends and family to put them into these types of positions almost by any means necessary; and, number three, the big challenge with filing these lawsuits, as we all do, is that they sometimes take more time than the way that this administration is moving.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Vince Warren. Of course, we’re going to cover this tomorrow, because the hearing is today for [William] Barr to become attorney general of the United States under President Trump. Vince Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

When we come back, we go to the border to talk with people involved with the case of giving water and food to those who could potentially die in the harsh Sonoran Desert. Why are they on trial? Stay with us.

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