He has been a focus of criticism and a longtime target of congressional Republicans, one of whom recently called for his resignation.
But Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. made it clear Monday that he’s not going anywhere.
In a speech at the Justice Department headquarters in Washington, he defended his two-year tenure and sketched out his priorities going forward, vowing to fight terrorism, violent crime and financial fraud.
“Without question, the results that we’ve achieved have been historic,” Holder told more than 150 Justice employees in the department’s Great Hall. “But I am not yet satisfied.’’
Gone was the grim attorney general who abruptly ended a news conference this month after losing his battle to try the accused Sept. 11, 2001, conspirators in federal court.
In his place was an upbeat Cabinet member who quoted former attorney general Robert F. Kennedy and described working for the Justice Department as his longtime “dream job.”
“Like you, I love this department. And, like you, I am proud — not only to serve it, but also to champion its work,” he said.
In his remarks on the department’s “priorities and mission,” Holder made no mention of the release of classified military documents obtained by the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks. The documents, provided to European and U.S. news outlets, including The Washington Post, are intelligence assessments of nearly every one of the 779 people who have been held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since 2002.
Holder was heavily involved in the Obama administration’s discussions about inmates there, and he pushed hard to try accused Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators in federal court in Manhattan. He said such a trial would be the “defining event” of his tenure.
Several weeks ago, however, a visibly frustrated Holder announced that the trial would instead be held before a military commission at Guantanamo Bay.
Holder’s plan for civilian trials drew strong opposition from congressional Republicans, who were joined by Democrats. At least one Holder critic, Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), called for his resignation over the issue.
In his speech, Holder vowed to preserve a role for federal courts in fighting terrorism. “Let me be very clear about this,’’ he said. “We will continue to rely on our most powerful and most proven tool in bringing terrorists to justice: our federal court system.”
He also took on critics who have questioned his efforts to revamp the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, which internal watchdogs say had been politicized under the George W. Bush administration.
Conservatives have accused the Obama administration of playing politics of its own by dismissing most of a voter-intimidation lawsuit that Bush officials had filed against members of the New Black Panther Party.
In recent months, the Civil Rights Division has come under criticism for suing a small Illinois school district on behalf of a Muslim teacher who wanted three weeks off for a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Holder offered nothing but praise. “Once again, the Civil Rights Division is open for business and true to its founding principles,” he said, adding that the department has filed “a record number” of civil rights criminal cases over the past two years.
Vowing to continue enforcing civil rights and other laws that protect “those most in need of our help,’’ Holder concluded by issuing a challenge to the Justice employees sitting before him.
“This is our time. This is our moment,” he said. “This is our chance to strengthen the great traditions of this department, to build on its most notable achievements, to honor the contributions of those who have served before us, and to create a world that reflects our aspirations for future generations.”