CBS "Face the Nation" - Transcript


By:  Eric Holder, Jr.
Date: July 11, 2010
Location: Aspen, CO

And we're in the Benedict Music Tent at the Aspen Ideas Festival
in Aspen and we're joined by the Attorney General Eric Holder.
Mr. Attorney General, thank you so much for being with us.

Good to be here.

Let's just start with the top of the news, this bizarre ring of
Russian spies or whatever they were. After they pled guilty, a
deal was worked out to exchange them with some people that the
United States had an interest in. Just give us the details.
What's this about?

Well, the ten people here in the United States pled guilty to
acting as agents of Russia without registering with our
government, and we essentially orchestrated a swap. So that we
had access to, or got that four people who had been charged in
Russia with conducting intelligence activities on behalf of
Western countries.

What do we get here? I mean the United States, the F.B.I., spent
ten years tracking these people. Did we have any indication that
they stole anything of significance?

They didn't pass any classified information, and for that reason
they were not charged with espionage; on the other hand, we have
broken up a pretty substantial network that consisted of what they
called illegals, ten people who were in different parts of the
country and who were trying to in some ways insinuate themselves
into our country and finds ways in which they could get
information from a variety of sources. We did actually make
contact with certain people and did obtain certain information
from people who were unwitting in their interaction with these

Well, what do we get in exchange? The four people that they're
being exchanged for?

These are people, as I said, who have been charged with
intelligence activities in Russia and in whom we had a great deal
of interest, as well as England and we have gotten those people

Mr. Attorney General most of the time when the F.B.I. spends that
much time and that many resources on watching people like that,
the prosecutors usually wanna prosecute them. They wanna put them
in jail. Why did they agree to make this deal?

Well, there were a variety of reasons. I mean, I think chief
among them being the concern with the swap that we ultimately
concluded. They could have been placed in jail but we saw this as
an opportunity to get back to England and get back to the United
States these four people in whom we have a great deal of interest.
And it was on that basis that we decided to make that decision.

Why did you decide to close in on them now? Why was it decided to
break it up, break this whole thing up?

Because one of the members, one of the uh the husbands of one of
the couples was in the process of going to France and then on his
way to Russia and the concern was that if we let him go, we would
not be able to get him back. There were other operational
considerations that we've not been in a position to reveal and
cannot reveal at this point, operational concerns that if we did
not act at that point, the possibility existed that we would not
be able to break up the ring in the totality in the way that we
have now.

It appears that they didn't pose much of a threat to this country.
Did they?

Well, they were acting as agents of a foreign power. And
therefore they were certainly a threat in that regard. The
potential for what they might have done was, I think, a serious
thing. And the reality is that we had them under observation for
over ten years, monitored their activities, saw what they were
trying to do.

They were supported by Russia to a very great degree, hundreds of
thousands of dollars. Great amounts of communication between them
and Russia. Russia considered these people very important to
their intelligence gathering activities. And we agree that they
were intelligent, they were important to the Russians. And it was
for that reason that we monitored them and took this extremely

One question that we've gotten a lot of e-mails on and a lot of
calls at CBS News: What happens now to the children?

The children have all been repatriated. We did so consistent with
what their parents' wishes were, and to the extent that we had
children who were, close to majority or majority, they made their
own decisions as to where they wanted to go. So the children have
all been handled, I think, in an appropriate way.

Because some of those children, because they were born here, would
actually be U.S. citizens.

Right. And to the extent that they had the ability to make
choices, they were old enough to make them they made their
decisions and they've gone back with their parents.

Let's turn to the other big story of the week. You filed suit to
ask a judge to overturn Arizona's new immigration law. It has put
Republicans in a rage. Here's what Senate Republican Leader Mitch
McConnell said. He said, "Suing the people of Arizona for what
the federal government has utterly failed to do will not help
secure our borders."

Senators Kyl and McCain, the Arizona Senators, say, "Attorney
General Holder speaks to the federal government's responsibility
to enforce immigration law, but what are people of Arizona to do
when the federal government fails its responsibility?" So why did
you file this lawsuit?

I understand, first off, the frustration of the people of Arizona
and the concerns that they have with regard to the amount of
illegal immigration that occurs. But the solution that the
Arizona legislature came up with is inconsistent with our federal

It is responsibility of the federal government to decide
immigration policy. And what the Arizona con-- the Arizona
legislature came up with was a statute that is inconsistent with
the federal constitution. It's preempted by the federal
constitution. On the basis of preemption, we decided to file a
lawsuit. We have an immigration policy that takes into account a
whole variety of things; international relations, national
security concerns, and it is the responsibility of the federal
government, as opposed to states doing it on a patchwork basis to
decide exactly what it is our policy should be with regard to
immigration. And it was on that basis that we filed a lawsuit.

You've heard the same criticism that I have. Some are saying that
it's just all politics, what you're trying to do is to brand
Republicans as anti-immigration, or in fact anti-Hispanic, before
the elections in November.

Not true at all. The basis for this was a legal determination by
those of us at the Justice Department that the law was
inconsistent with the constitution. And there, I think one has to
also understand that there are a substantial number of Republicans
and people in law enforcement who thought that the decision that
we made to file this lawsuit was, in fact, the correct one. So it
is not a monolith. It's not a Republican monolith here where
people are saying in the Republican Party that this was an
inappropriate decision.

When the Arizona law was first passed, both you and the president
expressed concerns that it would lead to racial profiling because
it allows the police, if they think someone might be in this
country illegally it gives them the right to stop them and they
have to produce papers to show that in fact they are citizens.
Yet, your lawsuit doesn't talk at all about racial profiling, or
if it even mentions it it's just barely. It just talks about the
federal government is being preempted from a duty that is has to
perform. Why did you choose to go that route?

Well, we wanted to go out with what we thought was our strongest
initial argument and to focus on what we thought is the most
serious problem with the law as it now exists. It doesn't mean
that if the law, for whatever reason, happened to go into effect
that six months from now, a year from now, we might not look at
the impact the law has had and whether or not-- see whether or not
there has been that racial profiling impact. And if that was the
case we would have the tools and we would bring suit on that

Are you saying, though, that states and local governments have no
responsibility when it comes to enforcing immigration policy, that
that's solely the responsibility of the federal government?

States and local governments can certainly help the federal
government enforce immigration laws. What we're saying is that
they cannot pass laws that are inconsistent with the federal laws,
or do things that contravene federal policy when it comes to the
enforcement of our immigration laws. And the Arizona statute, if
you look at the guts of it, really puts in place a whole variety
of things that are inconsistent with what we have decided to do as
a federal government. And it is on that basis that we decided to
file a lawsuit.

The trouble in the Gulf continues. You said couple a weeks, or
it's getting to be months ago you announced that the government is
going to open an investigation to determine if the conduct of BP
officials constituted criminal behavior. It was a very unusual
thing for a law enforcement or a prosecutor to announce that.
Number one, and when you did announce it, I would add the stock of
BP fell. It really tumbled. Why did you choose to make that

Well, I was very careful in what I said when I did not say that BP
was under investigation. What I did say was that we had opened a
criminal investigation but did not indicate who the subject of the
investigation was. And that is a very serious thing because there
are a variety of entities and a variety of people who are the
subjects of that investigation. And for people to conclude that
BP is the focus of this investigation might not be correct. So

But it might be correct?

I am not going to go any further than what I said in New Orleans
and what I've said today. But the-- given the extraordinary
nature of what our nation is facing there, we thought it was
appropriate to let the American people know that the federal
government was understand what was going on here, and that we were
using the full panoply of our powers to open both a criminal
investigation and a civil inquiry to ensure that the American
people don't pay a cent for the clean up, that we want to do all
that we could to restore the environment to that which it was
looked like before and perhaps improve it, and to make sure that
we held accountable anybody who was responsible for the spill.

So where is the investigation now? Should we be expecting
indictments any time soon, or any actions?

I mean, the investigation is ongoing. Our primary concern at this
point is getting the spill stopped. And hopefully we'll that will
happen relatively quickly. The investigation is ongoing. We are
in the process of accumulating documents, talking to witnesses on
both the criminal side as well as the civil side. But I wouldn't
put a time table on when we'll be

All right. Let's take a break here. And when we come back in 60
seconds, we'll talk about a lot of the other things that are on
your plate, including what are you going to do about Khalid Shaikh
Muhammad, the mastermind of 9/11. Back in a minute.


And we're back now with the Attorney General Eric Holder. Mr.
Attorney General, what is your current thinking on what is to be
done with the 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad? You at
first were going to try him in New York. Now, it appears that--
he's going to be tried some place else. Where are you on this?

Well, no decision's been made yet as to exactly where the trial is
going to occur. What we want to do is to hold accountable as
effectively as we can the people who are responsible for what
happened on September the 11th. We've had to deal with a variety
of things. Funding, and dealing with Congress.

The concerns that have been expressed by local officials. We're
trying to work our way through that and as soon as we can, we will
make a decision as to where that trial-- will occur. But we are
bound and determined to hold Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and those who
worked with him, hold them responsible for happened on September

Have you decided yet whether it'll be before a military tribunal
or a civilian court?

We are still in the process of considering that as well. The
recommendation I made was that it should be done in a civilian

Are you still leaning in that direction?

That is something that we are in the process still of working our
way through.

Can I ask you the obvious question?
What is taking so long to make this decision?

Well, I mean, it-- there were certainly unanticipated things that
happened. One looks at the way in which Congress has looked at
this and the question of whether or not we will have sufficient
funding in order to bring these cases.

There have been restrictions that have been talked about by
Congress, some of which have been imposed. We're going to have to
work with Congress in order, I think, ultimately to bring this
case to trial. And I think that given the magnitude of what
happened on September the 11th and the need to bring justice and
closure to this that people in Congress need to work with us in
the executive branch to come up with a way in which we can put
these people on trial. Justice has been denied too long.

Well this controversy now that goes on and on and on some argue
that a person you know, that these people, that many people feel
are not criminals, that they're military combatants, that they
should not be read their rights.

They should not enjoy all the rights that those of us of in
America have. Why can't you try them before a military tribunal?

I look at it the other way. Why can't we use a great criminal
justice system that has proven effective in these kind of cases
over the years, that has proven effective in a wide range of cases
over the last 200 years, why can't we use that system?

It is that system that we have often said distinguishes us from
other countries. It is one that I am extremely proud of and one
that I think is extremely capable. We have tried over 300
terrorists in our criminal justice system. We've gotten very long
sentences where that was appropriate. There have been a really
limited number of people who have been tried in the in the
military tribunals, which is not to say that they should not be
used. But at the exclusion, I think if we try to exclude the
federal criminal justice system we are taking away one of the
tools that we have. And I think ultimately we make this nation
much weaker. That's a very dangerous thing, I think, to take that
tool out of our hands.

There was some talk at one point that you might move this trial to
perhaps a military base in Virginia. Is that still an option?

There are any number of possibilities that we are considering.
And we have not made any final decisions.

Can you, in fact, seek the death penalty when you take someone
before a military tribunal? I know you can in a civilian court.
Because I've had some lawyers tell me that that might not be

You can certainly seek the death penalty. There is real question
as to whether or not somebody can plead guilty and get the death
penalty on the military side. You can certainly do that in a
civilian setting.

But you might not be able to do that if they plead guilty in a
military tribunal?

Right. There's real question about that.

It's interesting that nobody has made much of that, that this has
become so controversial. I'm surprised that those of you who
favor the civilian trials haven't said to some who want to put
these people before a military tribunal, "But look, we might not
be able to get the death penalty."

One of the things I think that is particularly bothersome to me is
that this really has become something that has become political.
And the politicization of this issue when we're dealing with
ultimate national security issues is something that disturbs me a
great deal.

We are dealing with the deaths of 3,000 people on September the
11th. We're dealing with the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, the
person who was a key part of al-Qaeda. And to have Republicans
and Democrats arguing about this in a political way, as opposed to
dealing with the substance that we have to really focus on, is
something that I think is regrettable and has resulted, I think,
in the delays that that we have seen.

One of the president's first acts when he became president was to
say that he would close Guantanamo, our prison facility, within a
year. Guantanamo is still open. When is that question going be
resolved? And is that, in fact, any more a priority for the

It is still a priority. Guantanamo is serves as a recruiting tool
for al-Qaeda. The intelligence shows that, continues to show that
that is true. It has served as a wedge between us and our
traditional allies. We have done all that we can to try to close

I think people have to understand we've done a substantial amount
of work. When we started there, there were 240 people who were in
Guantanamo. We're down to about 180. We have looked at each one
of those prisoners who were there, each one of those detainees,
and made individualized determinations as to what ought to happen
to them, those who can be tried those who can be repatriated,
those who will be detained under the laws of war. That has been

Again, we need Congress to come up with an alternative facility.
We've identified one in Illinois, the Thompson facility, that we
think we could bring people to. We have not gotten the funding
from Congress in order to do that. But this is still a priority
for this administration.

Do you think that this decision will be made before the November

I-- you know, we have made the decision. This is something that
we want to do. We need congressional support in order to do it.
We have put in the requests that we have for the 2011 budget,
money to acquire the Thompson facility and to change at least a
portion of it so that we could hold people that are not in
Guantanamo, hold them in that facility. We need Congress to
appropriate the money to do it.

At this point, Congress has not been willing to do that. Do you
have any state other than Illinois, I guess it is, that that says
that they would be willing to do this? And I don't think that's
even certain, is it. Is there any place else that has agreed
they'd be willing to have this facility?

We actually have had expressions of interest from a couple of
other states. I don't want to necessarily talk about them now
because I think we have a very firm commitment from the people in
Thompson and from state officials in Illinois that they are
willing to convert a portion of that facility that is underused
and would be sold to the federal government for the detention of
people who are now held in Guantanamo.

You know, I remember during the campaign President O-- I mean,
Senator Obama said he wanted to close Guantanamo said he wanted to
close Guantanamo. Senator McCain said that he wanted to close
Guantanamo. And I think those of us in the press bear a little
responsibility in all of this. Because we forgot to ask the
follow up: "How are you going to do it?" It's..has it not proven
to be a lot more difficult than you thought it was?

Well, it's proven more difficult because there have been people
who have changed their positions. I think as you said, Senator
McCain certainly was in favor of closing Guantanamo. President
Bush has expressed a desire to close Guantanamo. Our military
leaders have indicated a desire to close Guantanamo. Those are
people who are on the front lines who have said Guantanamo should
be closed.

This is another instance where I think politics, unfortunately has
entered into this discussion. I think there's a lot of
misinformation out there. We have proven an ability to hold in
our federal prison system people convicted of, charged with
terrorist offenses very effectively, very safely.

There is no reason to believe that people held in Guantanamo
cannot be held wherever we put them in the United States. Again,
very safely and very effectively. And so it is our hope that we
will be able to persuade Congress to give us the ability to open
that Thompson facility.

You know, early on in the administration you created quite a stir
when you said in a speech that we had become a nation of cowards
because we weren't talking enough about the race. a lot of people
criticized you for that. A lot of people applauded you for saying
that. Are you sorry now that you said that? Or what exactly did
you mean by that, and how do you feel today after some time has

I think that this is ours is a great nation. But one of the great
things that we have always tried to we have always wrestled with
from the inception of this nation, is the question of race. If
one looks at the history of this country in the 19th century, race
was, I think, the dominant issue. If you look at history of this
country in the 20th century, race was one of the dominant issues.
It remains an issue that-- I think still divides us. And if you
look at the demographic changes this nation is about to undergo,
we have to have, I believe-- an open and honest discussion about
race, ethnicity the diversity that we are about to see.

An unprecedented diversity in this country can be a great source
of strength for this nation, but if not dealt with appropriately
can also be something that is very divisive. And what I was
trying to say in that speech is that we should be honest with one
another and not feel that we have to retreat into our cocoons and
only say that which we consider to be safe. That we ought to have
the strength of character to say that which we really feel and
people who are receiving it should understand that those things
are said in good faith. To just have an open, honest dialogue
about something that I think for too long we have not been willing
to discuss.

Do you see any sign that we are doing better on that?

Well, slightly. I think certainly that speech that I gave
generated some conversation. I'm not sure that I heard all the
applause that you were talking about with regard to those
remarks. I think perhaps we are getting to a place where a better

I think the fact that we have an African American as president,
perhaps an African American as an attorney general is a spur in
that regard. But I think there's still a lack of desire and
understandable, I think in some ways. People feel uncomfortable
talking about racial issues out of fear that if they express
things they will be characterized in a way that's not fair. I
think that there is still a need for a dialogue about things
racial that we have not engaged in.

Mr. Attorney General, thank you for being with us in Aspen on Face
the Nation.

Thank you.

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