President Barack Obama with Attorney General Eric Holder. | White House photo.
Everyone should read Wil Hylton's GQ piece on the almost total failure of Eric Holder's Justice Department to live up to the ideals that he and President Barack Obama professed before the 2008 election. The Obama administration was supposed to bring a new era of accountability, transparency, and rule of law to the Justice Department. Here's Hylton:
During the 2008 campaign, no other issue defined Barack Obama like his promise to restore America's commitment to international law. Other items may have topped his domestic agenda, but as a symbol of what Obama's candidacy meant, of what his election signified to the world, nothing conveyed his message of "change" like the pledge to repair American justice.
"Obama promised change on a variety of fronts, but the central front was the rule of law," says Georgetown law professor and civil-liberties scholar David Cole. "He promised to restore our standing in the world by restoring our commitment to constitutional and international law."
That hasn't happened: Guantanamo is still open, terrorist suspects are still being held indefinitely without charge, no one has been prosecuted for crimes related to abusive interrogations (odds are that no one will be), and despite the much-touted prospect of an independent DOJ, Holder seems to have consistently toed the White House line.
Many insiders blame all this on Rahm Emanuel, the recently departed White House chief of staff. But the buck stops with the President. The real question, Hylton writes, is this:
If anything, Emanuel's departure brings into focus the more elusive question that has surrounded the Obama White House since day one: how much Emanuel actually drove administration policy, and how much he only reflected it. I had come to Holder's office to find out: Did Rahm's departure signal a new opening, or was the problem never with Rahm at all?
Spoiler Alert: Rahm probably wasn't the problem.
As Marcy Wheeler writes, Hylton's story is "rich in capturing Holder’s self-denial, his attempts to ignore that his actions directly violate principles he laid out before he became Attorney General." Then there's the devastating conclusion:
As we went back and forth [over the case of Anwar Al-Awlaki, the radical cleric (and US Citizen) the Obama administration wants to kill without due process], I began to realize that it was impossible to know how much of Holder's argument he really believed, and how much he was merely willing to say. Like any good political appointee, he was prepared to defend the policy whether he liked it or not. And in that case, maybe it didn't matter what he supported; promoting the policy was supporting it. I was reminded of something one of his friends had told me, a former DOJ official who has known Holder since the beginning of his career: "Eric has this instinct to please. That's his weakness. He doesn't have to be told what to do—he's willing to do whatever it takes. It's his survival mechanism in Washington."
And then I remembered another moment, months earlier, sitting in his office on the heels of the KSM decision. Holder seemed deflated and tired, and in an attempt at humor, I pointed to the painting of Bobby Kennedy and made a joke about the independence of the attorney general. Holder bristled. "Some people say Bobby was pretty independent," he snapped.
I nodded, and he seemed to relax. "But yeah," he said, pointing at another painting across the room. "By contrast, Elliot Richardson."
As Nixon's third attorney general, Richardson lasted only five months, resigning in protest when the president ordered him to fire the Watergate prosecutor. "He has just one year under his name," Holder mused. "There's no dash. There's no hyphen. He lasted just a number of months, but he did the job. He did the absolute right thing. When asked to do something he felt was inconsistent with his oath as attorney general, he resigned."
"So," he said quietly. "He's a hero."
If Holder really believes in the ideals he promoted before the election, he should resign. It's hard to think of anything that would draw more attention to the Obama administration's failures and broken promises on civil liberties. With John Durham's investigation wrapping up (and neutered anyway), something dramatic like Holder's resignation is the only thing that could really strike a blow for accountability and justice. Anyway, read Hylton's whole piece. It's a barnburner.