Attorney General: How Sept. 11 Changed America

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Host Michel Martin continues her conversation with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. They discuss how the terrorist attacks have changed America and informed the way he does his job as the nation's top law enforcement officer. He says Sept. 11 continues to be "chilling" and remains on his mind even when he goes to sleep.

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I am Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Still to come, he was a brand new pastor on September 11th of 2001. He describes comforting those affected by the September 11th attacks and what he's done since. That's from our essay series, Where Were You?

But first, we continue our conversation with Attorney General Eric Holder. When I spoke with him yesterday, I asked him how he felt both the nation and the Department of Justice have changed in the years since September 11, 2001.

ERIC HOLDER: I mean, I'm old enough to remember a time when we thought that we were safe because we had two oceans, one east, one west, and that that kept us safe, as it did during World War II, from all things that many other people in the world had to deal with.

On September the 11, that notion was shattered. We saw that we were a subject of this terrorist effort, and so that was something that I think was very jarring and we've had to adapt to that.

You know, we have in place now a whole variety of mechanisms within our government. We have a National Security Division, for instance, within the Justice Department that did not exist before. I spend probably 60 percent of my time, maybe 70 percent of my time, as attorney general dealing with national security matters, which is certainly not the case when I was here last during the Clinton administration.

So I think we've changed as a society. We are more cautious. We are more cognizant of the threats that we have to confront.

MARTIN: Do you think it's changed you in any way?

HOLDER: Yeah. I think it has. You know, it is still, for me, at a very emotional level, something that is hard to deal with. As I said, I would take the train, you know, to New York and one of the guide posts I had to get a sense of, you know, where I was would be to see those towers. I'd been to the restaurant, Windows on the World. I'd been to the observation deck. I saw them being constructed, and to see that they were not there was something that was painful.

To hear my brother talk about people who he trained with, who he worked with and who were lost on that day and then the impact that it had on my city. I mean, I still consider myself a New Yorker. That is something that, on an emotional level, just really has an impact on me and it has certainly shaped how I have to do this job as attorney general.

MARTIN: How does it shape your work here?

HOLDER: Well, I start my day at 8:30 every day looking at the threat stream for the past 24 hours, which Janet Reno certainly didn't have to do when she was attorney general, but which I'm sure John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales, Judge Mukasey had to do, but that's different.

And it's a mood shaper. You're never really happy in this job. Even if I wake up in the morning and have what I think is going to be a pretty good day, by the time I finish that 8:30 briefing and have a sense of what's going on in the world and who's trying to harm American interests, the American citizens, it's something that's pretty chilling.

Some days more chilling than others, but it puts you in a mood where there's not a huge amount of joy that you get. And even when you're dealing with other matters, if the 8:30 briefing is particularly troublesome, it's something that's always in the back of your mind and it's something that's on my mind when I go to sleep. Have we missed something? Have I not been as effective as I should have been? Have I not ordered something that I should have ordered? You're always thinking about that. I write things down on a pad to try to make sure that I never forget something.

And I talk to Bob Mueller, who's the head of the FBI, and he says many of the, you know, many of the same things.

MARTIN: Eric Holder is the Attorney General of the United States. We spoke with him at the Justice Department. Eric Holder, thank you so much for speaking with us.

HOLDER: Well, thank you.

MARTIN: If you'd like to hear our previous conversations about September 11 and what's happened since, especially our conversation with former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, you can go to, click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE.

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