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Amid New Questions on Interrogation Tactics, Holder Mulls Road Ahead

May 13, 2009 at 6:20 PM EDT
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After a report on Wednesday's Senate hearings on CIA interrogation tactics, Gwen Ifill talks to Attorney General Eric Holder about his perspective on the debate over the use of torture on detainees and other political matters as part of a panel discussion.
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JIM LEHRER: Torture was one of the subjects Attorney General Eric Holder discussed today with Gwen Ifill. He took questions from her and others at the National Press Club in Washington.

The event was sponsored by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Here are some excerpts.

GWEN IFILL: There were hearings today on Capitol Hill about torture and which — some of the most compelling testimony came from someone who said that they didn’t feel it was effective. In your looking at this, do you believe that torture, however it’s defined, has been effective?

ERIC HOLDER, attorney general: No, I don’t think so. I think that you can get information that you seek from people who are prisoners, detainees, whatever, by using less intrusive methods.

I think the fact that the FBI has been successful over the years in interrogating people and apparently was successful in dealing with some of these high-value detainees, at least while they were on the scene, I think is an indication that you don’t necessarily have to go to methods that I think are inconsistent with our values and inconsistent with who we are as a nation in order to get good information.

GWEN IFILL: I do want to clarify one thing. Have you ruled out looking back at the actions of previous administration officials on this?

ERIC HOLDER: Well, as I said — and I don’t want to evade anything, but, I mean, it really is a question of trying to figure out where the law and the facts take us. I don’t — I don’t know.

GWEN IFILL: Are there any circumstances under which you would authorize the use of torture?

ERIC HOLDER: No, I can’t imagine. I mean, we hear about, you know, the ticking time bomb example. And, you know, you work, I think, under a false assumption, a false premise that torture will result in the receipt of good, useful information.

And the experts who I have talked to, retired military intelligence officers and other people I’ve talked to, people at the FBI, you know, will say that those who are tortured tend to say whatever it is they think you want to hear to stop the torture as opposed to necessarily giving you what the truth is.

GWEN IFILL: If you assume that waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques are torture, and therefore a violation of criminal law, isn’t it a massive failure of the rule of law if no one, not one single person is prosecuted?

ERIC HOLDER: Well, it depends on, you know, what we see, what the facts are. You know, I think, you know, there are a lot of lawyers in this room, and I think they would understand that, you know, when it comes to the criminal law, there’s a whole question of specific intent.

And if people had Justice Department opinions that said, “What you are doing is appropriate,” those would be very difficult criminal cases to bring, so…

Destination of Guantanamo detainees

Eric Holder
U.S. Attorney General
There are 241 people at Guantanamo. We're going through these -- making these individualized determinations about whether or not they can be released or transferred, whether they will be prosecuted, in what form they might be prosecuted.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you about Guantanamo. The administration has promised to close Guantanamo, but there is some question about where all these detainees are going to go. Have you figured that part out yet?

ERIC HOLDER: No.

There are 241 people at Guantanamo. We're going through these -- making these individualized determinations about whether or not they can be released or transferred, whether they will be prosecuted, in what form they might be prosecuted.

I was in Europe last week talking to a number of our allies and had conversations with a number of justice ministers and a couple of presidents from other countries who are allies, talking to them about the possibility of relocation.

So it's hard to figure out exactly where those people, that cohort of people who will be released or transferred, where they will actually end up.

GWEN IFILL: Vice President Cheney has said on several occasions now that he believes that some of the efforts made by this administration, including your deliberations about what to do about torture, have made America less safe. I want to give you the opportunity to respond to the vice president on that.

ERIC HOLDER: Well, you know, I respect his service. I respect the fact that he's a patriot, he's a person who cares a great deal about this country, but I think he's dead wrong.

This nation is as safe now as it ever has been. It is something that I wake up every morning trying to determine, what do we have to worry about? What do I have to do today? It is the primary responsibility I have as attorney general of the United States, to keep the American people safe.

Comments on race

Eric Holder
U.S. Attorney General
I still worry that that comfort level isn't necessarily there so that people can feel secure, comfortable in expressing their views.

GWEN IFILL: Earlier this year, during Black History Month, you gave a speech which was widely reported on and basically boiled down to three words, the entire speech, in which you said that we were a "nation of cowards" when it came to talking about race. I wonder if you'd like to elaborate a little bit on that, just because there's been so little elaboration on what you meant.

ERIC HOLDER: Well, it's interesting that the speech, I thought, was much more than those three words. It talked about the need for a dialogue, a real dialogue to occur in our nation, to try to talk about things that for too long, I think, have divided us, racial things that have divided us, and for people to come from comfortable places so that, whatever your position, whatever your view about whatever racial issue people were talking about, that people would feel comfortable and that we would advance -- we'd advance the ball.

You know, that line, you know, in retrospect, I might have used some different words, although I suspect, if I had not used those words, that speech would not have gotten the attention that it did, so I'm, you know, mixed emotions about those I suppose.

I actually think that there is a dialogue that's going on. I think the presence of the president, the presence of the first lady, I think, have, you know, engendered a conversation that perhaps might not otherwise have occurred.

Having said that, I still worry that that comfort level isn't necessarily there so that people can feel secure, comfortable in expressing their views.

You know, affirmative action, for instance. You know, people might have one view of that; people might have a negative view of affirmative action. We ought to be comfortable in having that kind of a dialogue without people who have, say, a negative view of affirmative action thinking that, "I can't say that because I will be thought of as a racist."

GWEN IFILL: Justice Kennedy, the latest swing vote on the Supreme Court, wrote that the goal of the Voting Rights Act was to, quote, "hasten the waning of racism in American politics rather than to entrench racial differences." How do you see that distinction?

ERIC HOLDER: Well, I mean, I think we've made a lot of progress as a nation. There are still battles, though, to be fought. There are still barriers that have to be knocked down.

The fact that I'm sitting here as the 82nd attorney general of the United States is an indication of the progress that this nation has made. More significantly, the fact that the 44th president of the United States is an African-American indicates great progress.

And yet there are still, if you look at the statistical evidence and other things, there are still problems with regard to gender, with regard to race that we still have to confront.

Supreme Court nominee

Eric Holder
U.S. Attorney General
I think the court should and government generally should reflect the nation that it serves. And I think there's a need on the court to have all facets of our society represented.

GWEN IFILL: Since you actually are a member of an administration which has some say on what becomes of this court and the composition of this court, obviously, I have to ask you: What do you know?

ERIC HOLDER: Is there something about the court I should know?

GWEN IFILL: Ah, I don't know. Is there something we should know?

ERIC HOLDER: I'm going to make a big assumption that you're talking about the vacancy on the Supreme Court.

The president has indicated that he is looking to put on the court a great lawyer, a sharp lawyer, a person who is empathetic, as, I guess, is the word that he used, a person who understands that the Constitution is a living, breathing document, that it is a document that has to deal with things that could not have been envisioned when it was enacted, you know, a couple hundred years ago.

GWEN IFILL: How much, as part of the empathetic component, should there be an increased attention to diversity on the court?

ERIC HOLDER: Well, I think that's essential. I think the court should and government generally should reflect the nation that it serves. And I think there's a need on the court to have all facets of our society represented.

And so I would think that one of the things that will go through the president's mind as he's making this decision is, diversity will be a component in that decision.

GWEN IFILL: What do you say to people who say, "Well, what the president or what his people are now saying is that white men need not apply"?

ERIC HOLDER: Well, that's not true. You know, there are a whole variety of things that will go into the determination, and no one is excluded. No one is a sure bet. No one group is certainly going to be represented in this next pick. He'll pick a great lawyer who will make, I think, a major contribution.