Attorney General Reflects On Sept. 11, 2001

After the terrorist attacks, the Bush administration set up a legal framework for national security, including surveillance tactics and treatment of terror suspects. But when Eric Holder was confirmed U.S. attorney general in 2009, he had to reconsider those controversial measures. Holder speaks with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. This morning Americans awoke to news that officials are investigating the threat of one or more potential terrorist attacks this weekend, targeting New York City or Washington, DC. This as the nation marks the 10th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001. The details are sketchy but U.S. officials have confirmed that they have information that some kind of plot was in the works.

The Department of Homeland Security issued a statement saying that, quote, "There is specific credible but unconfirmed threat information." This is something that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg echoed in a press conference late last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: Now, the threat at this moment has not been corroborated. I want to stress that. It is credible but it has not been corroborated. But we do live in a world where we must take these threats seriously, and we certainly will.

MARTIN: This world of threat levels, heightened security and public vigilance began with the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, and this week, like many people, we've been remembering those attacks. We've been speaking with people from all walks of life about what they were doing when the attacks happened and what they think 9/11 has meant to the country. Later in this program we'll hear from a minister who was a brand new pastor in Shanksville, Pennsylvania when one of the hijacked planes crashed there, killing all on board.

That conversation in a few minutes. But first, a newsmaker interview with the attorney general of the United States, Eric Holder. Yesterday we heard from the former attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, who served in the administration of former President George W. Bush. Mr. Gonzales was actually serving as White House Counsel on 9/11. He was among those who helped to establish the legal framework for many of the issues that the current administration, the Obama administration, is still addressing, such as the treatment of terror suspects and what kinds of surveillance tactics may be used.

Since 2009, Eric Holder has served as this nation's top law enforcement official and I had the opportunity to speak with him yesterday at the Department of Justice. Attorney General Holder, thank you for speaking with us.

ERIC HOLDER: It's good to see you.

MARTIN: I'm asking you the same question we've been asking all of our guests this week, which is where were you on September 11th and what do you remember of that day?

HOLDER: Sure, I was in private practice and I got a call from my wife as I entered my office and she asked me what's going on in New York, and I said I have no idea what you're talking about, and she said a plane had just flown into one of the towers at the World Trade Center, and I flipped on the television and I watched the morning unfold and I got a call from my brother, who was a retired Port Authority lieutenant and had a number of his colleagues who served and ultimately died in the World Trade Center.

And he was obviously pretty upset, and while I was on the phone with him the second tower fell, and I remember thinking that it was - as a native New Yorker - it was tragic to see the destruction of something that I had seen constructed. I was in New York and a young guy as I saw the World Trade Center go up, the towers go up, and it was an awful thing to be in Washington and to see them go down.

MARTIN: Do you recall the moment at which you understood that this was a terrorist attack and do you remember any thoughts that you may have had over what the implications may have been? And it's worth remembering here that you were Deputy Attorney General during the Clinton administration, which is the first time that much of the country really understood or heard of al-Qaida and had some understanding of what their intentions were vis a vis the United States.

HOLDER: Well, as soon as I turned the television on after I had spoken to my wife, I had suspicions that the first plane going into the tower possibly was a terrorist attack, but as soon as the second plane went into the other tower, I knew at that point it was a terrorist attack, and my immediate thought, that it was al-Qaida.

MARTIN: You've taken some strong positions opposite those taken by the previous administration on some of the questions that have arisen in the wake of 9/11. One of the key ones, of course, being the treatment of detainees. Now, of course, you've been over this many times with members of Congress and so forth, but I do think it would be interesting to understand when you came to the view that some of the techniques used by the previous administration were torture.

Did you think so at the time or did you come to believe that it's just not worth it given the way it strains the relations, to put it mildly, between the U.S. and many parts of the world?

HOLDER: Well, I mean, if you look at the history of waterboarding, for instance, and how that was used by the Japanese in World War Two, by the North Vietnamese, by the Vietcong, the fact that we court-martialed our own troops when they used that technique during that war, and then when I studied it in preparation for my confirmation hearing, it seemed pretty obvious to me that it was appropriately called torture.

My opposition to it certainly was grounded in that, but also in the fact that there is no basis to believe that those kinds of interrogation techniques are ultimately effective, that people will say, as Senator McCain said, people will say whatever they think the interrogator wants to hear in order to stop that kind of harsh treatment. When you couple that with the fact that we have really effective techniques that are consistent with our values, that don't get into that kind of treatment of detainees, the kinds of things that the FBI does, putting that all together, it was easy for me to say that it was torture, and especially given the fact that we had more effective alternatives.

MARTIN: Why do you think it remains not easy for others? I mean former Vice President Dick Cheney's recently released a memoir. He's unapologetic about his support for these techniques. He believes that they were effective and it possibly led to the intelligence that led to the death of Osama bin Laden, which was achieved earlier, you know, this year. So the question I have for you is, you know, why is it that we can't seem to resolve this question?

HOLDER: Well, I think it's hard for some people to say they were wrong. Beyond that, I think that having authorized the use of these techniques, it's hard to step back and to say they in fact were torture or that they were inconsistent with our values or that they potentially were not as effective as other techniques. You'd be walking away from a body of authorizations, a policy that they stood behind, and I think some people are simply not big enough to do that.

MARTIN: When I talked to Mr. Gonzales - he was a guest on the program on Thursday, I interviewed him earlier in the week - and I asked him some of these questions and he said, look, we give our best advice based on the information we have at the time and then over time that advice may change. That's the way it should happen. That's the way it did happen in this case. I think he's arguing that kind of the press of the need to get to the bottom of the networks and so forth are what lead to that decision and he said maybe in a different circumstance you'd make a different decision.

Do you find any merit in that perspective?

HOLDER: I mean I have a great deal of respect for Attorney General Gonzales and certainly the men and women who were here at the department and who put together those memos. There were certain people in the department, I think, really went astray as they constructed the memos that are kind of a legal underpinning for some of those enhanced interrogation techniques. But you know, you can't make situational decisions here. You have to decide that which is effective, that which is consistent with the law, and that which is consistent with who are we are as Americans.

And if you took all those things into consideration, they don't lead you to walking down what I think is a pretty dark path towards enhanced interrogation techniques.

MARTIN: And of course the final question on that question is you've mentioned times earlier in our history, in the history of this country, where persons were brought to account and were prosecuted for their use of these techniques. Is that an open question or is that a closed question in relation to people who used these techniques in regard to terrorist suspects in the current era?

HOLDER: Well, I ordered an investigation to be conducted into the use of these techniques, but what I made clear was that people acted in a way that was consistent with the Justice Department guidance at the time, even though that guidance has since been repudiated by this administration, that people who acted in conformity with that guidance would not be subject to prosecution. We have conducted an investigation, have indicated that the majority of that investigation has been concluded, though there are ongoing matters that are still being examined and they are looking at the use of some of those techniques.

So we have a prosecutor who is still out there and is still conducting the investigation.

MARTIN: So it's still an open question.

HOLDER: Yeah.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with the attorney general of the United States, Eric Holder. We're talking about the September 11th terrorist attacks. We're talking about the events of that day and what has transpired since that day. At the time of the September 11 attacks, he had returned to private practice after serving as deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration.

And then the other question that's been much discussed, but which I still want to ask you about is the whole question of how terror suspects are to be held. You had wanted to close Guantanamo Bay. You wanted to try terrorist suspects in civilian courts. You were strongly repudiated by Congress on this question.

You know, recently the former secretary of State, Colin Powell, who's also former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came out on your side and said he felt the civilian courts were well able to address these matters.

But I just wonder if there's anything we've learned from this whole discussion. I don't want to re-litigate the whole matter, but I do want to ask: Is there anything you think you've learned from that?

HOLDER: Well, I'm not sure we've learned anything as yet. I think that's something that we will learn five and ten years down the road when we get out of the heat of the moment.

I'm confident that the decision that I made and the positions that I've espoused with regard to the use of the civilian system to deal with those charged with terrorist offenses will be borne out. History has shown us that - we've tried hundreds of these cases. We've tried them successfully. We have held people before trial safely. We've held people after they've been convicted. None of them have escaped.

The courts are used to handling these things. We have a body of law that can handle these kinds of matters, and I think that, you know, five, 10, 15 years from now, people are going to wonder, why was that ever a controversy?

I think it's all been wrapped up in politics now. They're nice soundbites that people use on the other side, but I think there's real danger in that in that we are talking about things that are ultimately about the protection of the American people, national security matters. And when politics enters into that field, I think we ought to be very afraid.

MARTIN: On the other hand, you know, while conservatives - it's not just conservatives, but many conservatives were outraged about the idea of trying terrorist suspects in civilian courts. Many liberals have been outraged about your decision to support the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, which allows the federal government to continue roving wire taps and certain monitoring of people in a certain fashion. They consider that way overreaching. They're very disappointed that this administration did not, you know, roll back on that. Can you just talk a little bit about that for a minute?

HOLDER: Well, the first time I testified on behalf of roving wiretaps was not as part of the Patriot Act, but when I was the deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration. And those things that make up the Patriot Act and the reauthorization of the act are, I think, really sensible, sound ways of giving the government the tools it needs to keep the American people safe, especially when you consider that these are techniques that would be subject to congressional oversight. They have to be approved by the judicial branch.

The concern that I had with a lot of what was done in the previous administration was where the executive branch took upon itself, and without any kind of interaction with the other branches, the decision to go ahead and use techniques, use certain methods.

What we have said in this administration is that we will seek authorization from Congress. We'll get bills passed and that we will obviously make the decisions that we actually make - make them available for review by the courts. We don't hold unto ourselves this notion that it is simply in the power of the executive branch to make these decisions.

MARTIN: Please stay with us. Our conversation with Attorney General Eric Holder here at the Department of Justice will continue after a short break. You're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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