Eric Holder's Surprise

By Benjamin Wittes
Monday, November 15, 2010, 12:14 PM

This article in GQ has generated a fair bit of unfavorable buzz about Attorney General Eric Holder. The article is, in my judgment, rather unfair--both to Holder and to the Bush administration folks who preceded him. By magnifying the villainy of the latter and accepting the critique of them by civil libertarians at face value, it makes incomprehensible Holder's various decisions not to prosecute them and, in key areas, not to break with their substantive judgments. For reasons I won't rehash here, a lot of this is bunk. The continuity was both predictable and (at least by some of us) predicted. And Holder and the people under him deserve no more opprobrium for these judgments than they deserve attacks from the Right for the areas in which they have broken with the past.

That said, there are a few very interesting details in the article and, there is at least one completely arresting--and rather disturbing--quotation from Holder himself. According to the article, Holder took the job as attorney general largely to repair the damage that the prior administration had done to its Civil Rights Division. The article reads:

While other areas of the Bush administration's policy troubled Holder—including the establishment of secret prisons and the legal netherworld of Guantánamo Bay—it was the demolition of the CRD that caught him in the most personal place and made it impossible to decline the appointment as attorney general.

But as we sat in his office one afternoon, Holder confessed that he never imagined how much of his time would be consumed by other issues entirely. "The biggest surprise I've had in this job," he said, "is how much time the national-security issues take. Those are the primary things that I have to deal with in a post-9/11 world. From an eight-thirty meeting every morning, to the threat screen for the last twenty-four hours, to meetings during the course of the day. And almost inevitably there's something that I take home at night that is national-security related. Our National Security Division didn't even exist when I was last here!"

I find this comment utterly bewildering. How could someone of Holder's sophistication and intelligence and intimate knowledge of the department have been remotely surprised by the prevalence of national security issues in the department in the post-September 11 era? It was hardly as though the department's shift in emphasis towards security matters had been a low-profile matter over the years. By the time Holder took office, the public knew well about the hospital room fight over warrantless wiretapping, the battles over coercive interrogation, public anxiety over the Patriot Act and national security letters, and high profile litigations over detention and trials of captives in the war on terror. These were the issues that dominated the Justice Department under the Bush administration. How could Holder have possibly thought going into government that this sort of issue, and not personnel matters at the Civil Rights Division, would dominate his tenure as well.

Because the GQ article is tendentious in other ways, I am tempted to imagine that Holder here has either been misquoted or, more likely, that the quotation is horribly out of context. If not, it reveals a startling naivete in Holder.