John Whitehead's Commentary
Attorney General Eric Holder: If the President Does It, It’s Legal
“I never thought I would see the day when a Justice Department would claim that only the most extreme infliction of pain and physical abuse constitutes torture and that acts that are merely cruel, inhuman and degrading are consistent with United States law and policy, that the Supreme Court would have to order the president of the United States to treat detainees in accordance with the Geneva Convention, never thought that I would see that a president would act in direct defiance of federal law by authorizing warrantless NSA surveillance of American citizens. This disrespect for the rule of law is not only wrong, it is destructive.”—Eric Holder, June 2008 speech to the American Constitution Society
Since the early days of our republic, the Attorney General (AG) of the United States has served as the chief lawyer for the government, entrusted with ensuring that the nation’s laws are faithfully carried out and holding government officials accountable to abiding by their oaths of office to “uphold and defend the Constitution.”
Unfortunately, far from holding government officials accountable to abiding by the rule of law, the attorneys general of each successive administration have increasingly aided and abetted the Executive Branch in skirting and, more often than not, flouting the law altogether, justifying all manner of civil liberties and human rights violations and trampling the Constitution in the process, particularly the Fourth Amendment.
No better example is there of the perversion of the office of the AG than its current occupant Eric Holder, who was appointed by President Obama in 2009. Hailed by civil liberties and watchdog groups alike for his pledge to “reverse the disastrous course that we have been on over the past few years” and usher in a new era of civil liberties under Obama, Holder has instead carried on the sorry tradition of his predecessors, going to great lengths to “justify” egregious government actions that can only be described as immoral, unjust and illegal.
Indeed, Holder has managed to eclipse both John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzalez, whose tenures under George W. Bush earned them constant reproach by Democrats and other left-leaning groups for justifying acts of torture, surveillance of American citizens and clandestine behavior by the government. Holder, however, has largely been given a free pass by these very same groups in much the same way that Obama has. The reason, according to former Senate investigator Paul D. Thacker, is that “Obama is a Democrat. And because he is a Democrat, he’s gotten a pass from many of the civil liberty and good-government groups who spent years watching President Bush’s every move like a hawk.”
Despite getting a “pass” from those who would normally have been crying foul, during his time as attorney general, Holder has “made the Constitution scream”—that according to one of his detractors. The colorful description is apt. Some of the Justice Department’s (DOJ) “greatest hits” under Holder begin and end with his stalwart defense of the Obama administration’s growing powers, coming as they do at the expense of the Constitution.
Moreover, as head of the DOJ, Holder’s domain is vast, spanning several law enforcement agencies, including the United States Marshals Service; FBI; Federal Bureau of Prisons; National Institute of Corrections; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Drug Enforcement Administration; and Office of the Inspector General (OIG), as well as the U.S. National Central Bureau for INTERPOL. To say that the agencies under Holder have struggled to abide by the rule of law is an understatement.
The following are just some of the highlights of the dangerous philosophies embraced and advanced by Holder and his Justice Department.
The military can detain anyone, including American citizens, it deems a threat to the country. Not only has the DOJ persisted in defending a provision of the National Defense Authorization Act that sanctions indefinite detentions of Americans, but it has also blasted the federal judge who ruled the NDAA to be vague and chilling as overstepping the court’s authority and infringing on Obama’s power to act as Commander in Chief.
Presidential kill lists and drone killings are fine as long as the president thinks someone might have terrorist connections. Holder has gone to great lengths to defend Obama’s use of drones to target and kill American citizens, even on U.S. soil, as legally justifiable. In fact, a leaked DOJ memo suggests that the President has the power to murder any American citizen the world over, so long as he has a feeling that they might, at some point in the future, pose a threat to the United States.
The federal government has the right to seize the private property—cash, real estate, cars and other assets—of those suspected of being “connected” to criminal activity, whether or not the suspect is actually guilty. The government actually collects billions of dollars every year through this asset-forfeiture system, which it frequently divvies up with local law enforcement officials, a practice fully supported by the DOJ and a clear incentive for the government to carry out more of these “takings.”
Warrantless electronic surveillance of Americans’ telephone, email and Facebook accounts is not only permissible but legal. According to court documents, more Americans have had their electronic communications spied on as a result of DOJ orders for phone, email and Internet information—40,000 people alone in 2011—and that doesn’t even begin to take into account agencies outside Holder’s purview, terrorism investigations or requests by state and local law enforcement officials.
Judicial review is far from necessary. Moreover, while it is legal for the government to use National Security Letters (NSL) to get detailed information on Americans’ finances and communications without oversight from a judge, it is illegal to challenge the authority of the Justice Department. Administrative subpoenas or NSLs—convenient substitutes for court-sanctioned warrants that require only a government official’s signature in order to force virtually all businesses to hand over sensitive customer information—have become a popular method of bypassing the Fourth Amendment and a vital tool for the DOJ’s various agencies. Incredibly, the DOJ actually sued a telecommunications company for daring to challenge the FBI’s secret order, lacking in judicial oversight, that it relinquish information about its customers. The FBI alone has issued more than 300,000 NSLs since 2000.
Due process and judicial process are not the same. In one of his earliest attempts to justify targeted assassinations of American citizens by the president, Holder declared in a March 5, 2012 speech at the Northwestern University School of Law that “The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process.” What Holder was attempting to suggest is that the Fifth Amendment’s assurance that “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law” does not necessarily involve having one’s day in court and all that that entails—it simply means that someone, the president for example, should review and be satisfied by the facts before ordering someone’s death. As one history professor warned, “Insert even a sliver of difference between due process and judicial process, and you convert liberty into tyranny. Holder, sworn to uphold the laws of the United States, is the mouthpiece of that tyranny, and Obama is its self-appointed judge, jury and executioner.”
Government whistleblowers will be bankrupted, blacklisted, blackballed and in some cases banished. As AG, Holder has reportedly prosecuted more government officials for alleged leaks than all his predecessors combined. Relying on the World War I-era Espionage Act, the DOJ has launched an all-out campaign to roust out, prosecute, and imprison government whistleblowers for exposing government corruption, incompetence, and greed. Intelligence analyst Bradley Manning is merely one in a long line of so-called “enemies of the state” to feel the Obama administration’s wrath for daring to publicly criticize its policies by leaking information to the media.
Government transparency is important unless government officials are busy, can stonewall, redact, obfuscate or lie about the details, are able to make the case that they are exempt from disclosure or that it interferes with national security. As Slate reports, “President Obama promised transparency and open government. He failed miserably.” Not only has Holder proven to be far less transparent than any of his predecessors, however, but his DOJ has done everything in its power to block access to information, even in matters where that information was already known. For example, when asked to explain the “Fast and Furious” debacle in which government operatives trafficked guns to Mexican drug lords, DOJ officials—unaware that much of the facts had already been revealed—“responded with false and misleading information that violated federal law.” When pressed for further information, the Justice Department retracted its initial response and refused to say anything more.
When it comes to Wall Street, justice is not blind. As revealed in a PBS Frontline report, the Obama administration has driven federal prosecutions of financial crimes down to a two-decade low, buoyed in its blindness to corporate corruption by campaign donations from Wall Street banks (whom Holder has determined are too big to prosecute anyhow) and staffers whose lucrative financial portfolios came about as a result of chummy relationships with financiers. As David Sirota points outs:
After watching the [PBS] piece, you will understand that the word “justice” belongs in quotes thanks to an Obama administration that has made a mockery of the name of a once hallowed executive department… Rooted in historical comparison, it contrasts how the Reagan administration prosecuted thousands of bankers after the now-quaint-looking S&L scandal with how the Obama administration betrayed the president’s explicit promise to “hold Wall Street accountable” and refused to prosecute a single banker connected to 2008′s apocalyptic financial meltdown.
Not all suspects should have the right to remain silent. In 2010, Holder began floating the idea that Miranda rights—which require that a suspect be informed of his right to remain silent—should be modified depending on the circumstances. Curiously, the Supreme Court is presently reviewing a case addressing a similar question, namely whether a suspect’s silence equates to an admission of guilt.
Clearly, it’s not the Constitution that Eric Holder is safeguarding but the power of the presidency. Without a doubt, Holder has taken as his mantra Nixon’s mantra that “When the President does it, that means it is not illegal.” It may be that the time has come to create a “non-political” and “independent” Attorney General, one who would serve the interests of the public by upholding the rule of law rather than justifying the whims of the President.