Dick Cheney has been a constant thorn in the Obama administration's side, which bewilders Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. "There's a part of me that doesn't really believe that he believes what he's saying," Holder says. NEWSWEEK's Daniel Klaidman spoke to the nation's top law-enforcement officer about critics, staying humble, and the threats to the nation. Excerpts:
Klaidman: The last time I saw Sharon [Malone, Holder's wife], she had this to say about you …
"He sees himself as the nice guy, but when he leaves the nice guy behind, that's when he's strongest." Accurate?
That's an interesting quote. I think that I try to be a consensus builder, but that ultimately what drives me is a sense of responsibility and a desire to do what's right, and if that means I have to do things that people are going to find unpopular, I'm prepared to do that. Like ordering the preliminary investigation into torture.
You leave the nice guy behind when Rahm Emanuel's around?
I can always be nice with Rahm. He's always nice with me.
Since we're on the subject of being strong, your critics think that you and this administration are not tough enough on terrorism.
Those comments are belied by the facts. We have disrupted plots where we have found them. There are things that we have done we can't discuss, but which have been successful. We've spent a huge amount of time and energy in making sure that we are prepared for what our enemies might try to do next. We have done things that [our critics] might not have thought were right, but [that] we think ultimately will make the American people more safe, like closing Guantánamo.
I'm going to read a quote from President Obama. This is from the National Archives speech: "We uphold our most cherished values, not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and it keeps us safe. Time and again, our values have been our best national-security asset." By that definition, did Vice President Cheney's vision make us less strong and less safe?
I think we are strongest when we adhere to what has always made this country great, adhering to the rule of law, following our moral precepts, and we are weakest when we have failed to do that. Great presidents have sometimes deviated from that path. Roosevelt did, with regard to the internment of the Japanese. Lincoln did, to some degree, with regard to the whole question of suspending habeas corpus. And I think the past administration, though they were under enormous pressure after 9/11, made some mistakes.
Is that a yes? Did those policies make us less strong and less safe?
I think that those policies left us with some rebuilding to do, both in terms of the relationships that we have around the world and rebuilding the mechanisms that we use in order to keep this country safe and that are consistent with our values.
There's been this troubling rash of arrests and foiled terror plots in recent weeks. The conventional wisdom for a long time has been that in this country, because of opportunities to rise up the socioeconomic ladder, Muslim Americans have not been vulnerable to this kind of extremism. And clearly, we're still talking about small numbers. But are you more worried about the threat of homegrown terrorism and Islamic extremism in this country?
Yes. What we've seen in the recent past, I think, is an indication of one of the things that we're going to have to be most concerned about in the future, this self-radicalization of American citizens or people who reside in the United States. They have too often come under the influence of people who have misinterpreted Islam.
As you see it, what's the most important difference between this administration's approach to combating terrorism and the previous administration's? I think that too often the past administration is now seen through the voice of one person. And that's not necessarily, I think, reflective of …
Are you talking about the president or …
No, I'm talking about the vice president. And I'm not sure that accurately reflects where the prior administration was. So there is that caveat. But having said that, I think that one of the things that distinguishes this administration is that we believe that our Constitution is a strong and vibrant document that, at the end of the day, is perhaps our best protection against those who would try to do this nation harm.
The previous administration had a kind of a sea change after 9/11—they were going to pursue terrorism more on a sort of military model. Instead of investigation and prosecution, they moved to disruption and prevention. At least to some degree, are we moving back to the more traditional law-enforcement model?
When people present that as an either-or, that's a false choice. We are doing both. Is this administration fighting terrorism using a military model? Yes. This president has just ordered 30,000 additional troops to go to Afghanistan. We are going to use military commissions. We are also going to use federal-civilian courts, to try people who did great harm to this nation on September 11.
How do you feel—how do you react, personally—when you see the former vice president going on about how this administration is not keeping the American people safe, or has abandoned important policies? Are you dismissive of it? Does it tick you off?
I frankly don't understand it. There's a part of me that doesn't really believe that he believes what he's saying.
One of the things you said to me a while ago was that the prior administration had actually left a pretty effective counterterrorism infrastructure in place. Tell me about that and what you think they did right.
I don't think that administration gets enough credit for that. Unlike former vice president Cheney, I have an ability to say [something positive about a rival administration]. I might have disagreed with them on policy matters and certain techniques that they might have used, [but] I think that they did leave in place a system of human and signals intelligence that has allowed us to monitor and to foil plots. Now, having said that, I think we have certainly made improvements.
I noticed that you were the only cabinet official who was with President Obama when he made that midnight visit to Dover, to honor fallen soldiers from the wars. Why were you there, and what were you thinking when you saw those caskets being lowered down from the cargo plane?
Well, I was there, generally, to support all those whose remains were being brought back to our country, but among those were three DEA agents who had been killed in Afghanistan. That was, in some ways, the most difficult evening I've had as attorney general. It made real, in a way that nothing else has, the sacrifices that public servants make on behalf of our country, making the ultimate sacrifice in the defense of this nation.
What did you talk about when you spoke to the president afterward?
I'm not sure I want to go into that, but I do remember that there were colleagues of the [fallen] DEA agents who were there, and they asked if they could meet with the president. And I said, "Sure." And I went to ask him to come into this room where those agents were. I remember, as I walked in, he was sitting on a couch with his back towards me, and I was really struck, given what we were there for, [by] the enormous burden that has been placed on his shoulders. He was sitting by himself, on a couch, and it just … I don't know, something just struck me about that picture, about the really tough decisions that a president has to make. And I brought them into the room, and he met with the DEA agents who had just come back from Afghanistan, who were unshaven. Some of them were in shorts. But it was important to them, and it was important to him.
He was getting ready to make this decision about sending more troops into Afghanistan.
Yeah. And I also wonder about that. How he has to balance those very human feelings, and the lack of desire to put American soldiers and agents in harm's way, against his constitutional obligations to keep the American people safe. When people criticized him for taking as long as he did to make that decision to deploy more troops to Afghanistan, it really struck me: why would you expect him to do anything other than take as long as he thought he needed? And if you'd been at Dover on that night, anybody would understand that.
You've seen him change since he's been in office. I mean, it sounds like he had a little more lightness before.
I'm not sure about that. He is, I think, the same person who I knew during the campaign. And the values that were so attractive to the American people during the campaign are the values that guide his actions now as president.
How have you changed in the last year?
I'm using the words that you used in the previous question: I think that there's a certain lightness that has gone out of me. My responsibilities do not compare to those that the president has, and yet I've had some tough decisions to make, consequential decisions to make. Life-and-death decisions to make.
Talking about death-penalty cases there, or …
Death-penalty cases. Other [decisions] I'd have to make in the intelligence sphere.
Obviously, we're all very focused on terrorism, but what are the law-enforcement issues out there that you think the public is ignoring or overlooking?
I think the American people are focused on the issues that they need to focus on, and we need to be responsive to what they're focused on, among them this whole question of economic crime and fraud. The whole question of political corruption. This whole question of hate crimes.
There's been a lingering perception that in our justice system, the deck is somewhat stacked against black people. Do you see pockets of racism that still persist in the justice system?
This is a much more fair America [than it was some decades ago]. Our justice system is much more fair, which is not to say that we are without problems. One of the things that we're trying to deal with now is the disparity between the sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine, and the disparate impact that it has on people of color. This administration has very courageously said that we want to do away with that disparity.
In the summer, you and I took a walk in your old neighborhood. I remember you telling me about your mom and dad, who came from the West Indies, and what they really emphasized with you was the twin principles of achievement and humility. I'm curious how the humility plays. The achievement is obvious. But what about the humility?
Well, it's not a difficult thing to be humble. As attorney general of the United States, there are constant critics of actions that you take. I'm still a work in progress.
I remember you'd just become attorney general, and you called me at my office, and you didn't do it through a secretary or assistant. One of our assistants answered the phone, and she put you on hold. You were on hold for two or three minutes. I'm guessing that doesn't happen to you very often, but would that annoy you now?
No, I don't think so. I still get placed on hold. That's a good thing, you know? You can't get too caught up in these jobs. You've got to remember who you were before, who you're going to be after. I've been on a lot of motorcades with whirring lights and sirens, but that's not who I am. That's not who I'm going to be.