It might have been a casual luncheon, but that didn’t make the questions any less probing.
In a wide-ranging dialogue hosted by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund at the National Press Club this afternoon, Gwen Ifill, the moderator and editor of PBS’s Washington Week, questioned Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. on a number of issues facing the Justice Department, including the Supreme Court, torture memos, and what he thinks of former Vice President Dick Cheney’s recent media blitz.
“I respect the man for his service to the country and the fact that he’s a patriot, but he’s dead wrong,” says Holder, referring to Cheney’s assertion that releasing previously classified torture memos put the country in danger.
Holder told Ifill that he thinks the nation is actually safer as a result of the memos being released because it shows that the country is no longer going to use techniques that he says are torture. “I think that you can get information that you seek from people who are prisoners, detainees, whatever, by using less intrusive methods,” Holder says. “I mean, we hear about the ticking time bomb example. And you work, I think, under a false assumption, a false premise that torture will result in the receipt of good, useful information.”
He added that he still doesn’t think the department should prosecute those who acted on the guidance of torture memos, though he declined to rule out prosecutions for those who drafted them. “We’ll go wherever the facts and the law take us,” he says.
Ifill asked Holder whether his recent trip to Europe had turned up any nations willing to accept Guantanamo Bay detainees. Holder responded that no decisions have been made yet, but an overall process is coming together. He says the department is still reviewing the cases of the some 240 detainees currently held at the prison and looking for ways to protect their rights while also protecting the American people's safety.
Speaking as the nation’s first African-American attorney general, Holder says the country still has a way to go in regard to civil rights. “The fact that I’m sitting here as an African American, much like the 44th president, shows that we’ve made progress. But we’re not there yet,” he says.
He says race is still an issue in America, and the country needs to reach a certain level of comfort in discussing the topic, echoing a speech he gave in February in which he called the U.S. a “nation of cowards” when it comes to talking about racial issues. That speech was criticized by some as going a bit far in making its point.
In hindsight, Holder says, he might have used slightly different language. But then again, maybe not. “The speech wouldn’t have gotten the attention it did, if I didn’t use those three words. I’m of mixed emotions about it,” Holder says. “I wish people would look at the whole speech in its entirety and the need for a dialogue on race.”
Ifill then turned the topic to the vacancy on the Supreme Court created by Justice David Souter’s announced retirement. “So what do you know?” Ifill asked Holder.
Holder dodged naming names, but he says he agrees with President Barack Obama that whoever the next justice is needs to show “empathy.” Obama’s empathy comment has been accused by critics on the right of being code for judicial activism. Holder disagreed, saying that a justice should show an understanding that what they do on the high court “affects the lives of every day Americans.”
“They need to understand that the Constitution is a living, breathing document that couldn’t envision what is happening now 200 years ago,” he says.