There are concerns about Eric Holder, who served as deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration and is reportedly President-elect Barack Obama’s choice to serve as U.S. attorney general. These concerns will be and should be properly aired during his confirmation hearings.
Given the possible (and more to the point, likely) choices available to Obama, however, Holder doesn’t seem like a bad choice.
The most prominent objection raised is Holder’s involvement in the “midnight pardon” of fugitive financier and Democratic donor Marc Rich during the final moments of the Clinton administration. As deputy attorney general, Holder is said to have participated in a phone call with the White House concerning the pardon and after a cursory review gave the idea a “neutral, leaning toward favorable” sign-off.
He later averred that this was a bad call, which it was.
Republican Sen. Arlen Specter has said this episode bears some scrutiny, which it does.
It is likely, however, that Clinton would have pardoned Rich in any event.
The objection raised by several left-wing bloggers concerns Holder’s role as a private attorney representing Chiquita Brands, which had allegedly funneled money and weapons to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a right-wing paramilitary outfit branded as a terrorist organization by the United States.
Chiquita says it was “protection” money, but paying it was against U.S. law. Holder negotiated a deal whereby Chiquita pleaded guilty and is paying a $25 million fine, but no executives were prosecuted.
Although it is legitimate to wonder how aggressively a Holder Justice Department would go after other companies that reportedly had similar dealings in Colombia, by itself this is not a disqualification. Every defendant is entitled to competent and aggressive counsel, which Holder provided.
Holder, who graduated from Columbia Law School in 1976, has a mixed record on some of the more aggressive “anti-terrorism” steps undertaken by the Bush administration. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, he argued on cable news that prisoners at Guantanamo were “people not entitled to the protection of the Geneva Conventions,” a position later rejected by the Supreme Court.
Later, however, he came to more critical conclusions about the abuses of the Bush administration, arguing in a speech this June that “we authorized torture, and we let fear take precedence over the rule of law.” He called for an end both to “rendition” of suspects to countries that use torture and to warrantless wiretapping and declared the next president must move quickly “to reclaim America’s standing in the world as a nation that cherishes and protects individual freedom and basic human rights.”
The most critical issue for the next attorney general will be restoring the idea that the Justice Department retains a certain independence from the president and the willingness to counter him when he oversteps on matters of executive privilege or executive power. In 2006 Holder told the National Journal, “the attorney general is the one Cabinet member who’s different from all the rest. The attorney general serves first the people, but also serves the president. There has to be a closeness at the same time there needs to be distance.”
That’s an insightful statement, recognizing an inevitable ambivalence. Holder would do well to stress the distance.
During his career at the Justice Department he built a record of prosecuting corruption cases against Democratic members of Congress.
As Roger Pilon, who heads constitutional studies at the libertarian Cato Institute (and might have been our choice), said, “Obama could have done much worse.” Absent any unforeseen scandals, we’re inclined to agree.