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The Attorney General of Rollback

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By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, November 19, 2008; 1:17 PM

If President-elect Barack Obama is the anti-Bush, then Eric Holder, his apparent choice to serve as attorney general, is the anti-Gonzales.

The tenure of Alberto Gonzales, who served as attorney general from 2005 to 2007 -- and before that, as White House counsel -- was marked by what critics described as torture, illegal surveillance and the overt politicization of the Justice Department. Holder, by contrast, could offer a restoration of the department's traditional role.

Eric Lichtblau and John M. Broder write in the New York Times: "If Mr. Holder is selected as attorney general and confirmed by the Senate, his biggest challenge, legal observers agree, will be to restore the credibility of a department that was badly battered by political scandal during the Bush administration. The dismissal of eight United States attorneys in 2007 and other controversies opened up the Justice Department to accusations that it had routinely let politics trump legal considerations."

Josh Meyer writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Supporters describe Holder as someone capable of engineering the kind of swift and significant course corrections that Obama has pledged to make at the Justice Department, which has been beset in recent years by one political controversy after another.

"'He wanted the next attorney general to make broad reforms at DOJ -- someone that has a broad enough basis of support that they can do it,' said [a] source close to the transition team, who was not authorized to speak publicly for Obama. 'It's pretty damn close to a deal. They've done the sounding out and gotten good response back.'"

Carrie Johnson writes in The Washington Post: "'It's fantastic that he will be a great attorney general,' said John Payton, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. 'It's also significant that he will be the first African American attorney general. . . . His mission is going to be to restore the soul of the Department of Justice.'"

Jason Tuohey blogs for the Boston Globe: "Judging by his past statements, Eric Holder Jr., reportedly Barack Obama's top pick for attorney general, may aim to roll back several of the Bush administration's most controversial legal moves if he is selected for the post."

Here is a summary and video of a defining speech Holder gave before the American Constitution Society in June.

"I never thought I would see the day," Holder said, "when a Justice Department would claim that only the most extreme infliction of pain and physical abuse constitutes torture and that acts that are merely cruel, inhuman and degrading are consistent with United States law and policy, that the Supreme Court would have to order the president of the United States to treat detainees in accordance with the Geneva Convention, never thought that I would see that a president would act in direct defiance of federal law by authorizing warrantless NSA surveillance of American citizens. This disrespect for the rule of law is not only wrong, it is destructive in our struggle against terrorism. . . .

"Our government authorized the use torture, approved of secret electronic surveillance against American citizens, secretly detained American citizens without due process of law, denied the writ of habeas corpus to hundreds of accused enemy combatants, and authorized the use of procedures that violate both international law and the United States Constitution.

"Now, I do not question the motives of patriotism of those responsible for these policies. But this does nothing to mitigate the fact that these steps were wrong when they were initiated and they are wrong today.

"We owe the American people a reckoning."


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