Eric Holder Won't Cut Obama Slack on the Torture Question


Attorney General Eric Holder is taking his job as top cop of the United States to heart, and is appointing a special prosecutor to get to the heart of CIA misconduct involving interrogations of suspected terrorists during the tenure of George W. Bush.

Holder's move, which the NEW YORK TIMES is calling "the most politically explosive inquiry since Mr. Holder took over the Justice Department in February," came in response to the DOJ's Monday release of a series of damning, partially redacted documents alleging that American government officials tortured prisoners by waterboarding them, threatening the lives of their children, and blasting a drill beside the blindfolded head of one prisoner.


This is in addition to the other long-known "enhanced interrogation" techniques such as prolonged sleep deprivation, cramped, solitary confinement or slamming detainees against a flexible wall. Michael Scherer of TIME notes "5 Important Revelations" from the declassified report:

The CIA IG concluded that the public had been misled about the interrogation program. While the report stops short of accusing any public official of lying, it makes clear that the public statements that the U.S. Government made about its conduct differed from what was actually happening, creating a liability for the CIA if the information ever got out. “The EITs [Enhanced Interrogation Techniques] used by the Agency under the CTC [Counterterrorist Center] Program are inconsistent with the public policy positions that the United States has taken regarding human rights,” the report reads.

Torture is abhorrent. Finding out what happened is the minimum that a free society like the United States should expect from its legal system. But the decision to investigate these abuses of power could get politically tricky in a hurry. From Holder's statement:

"I fully realize that my decision to commence this preliminary review will be controversial. As Attorney General, my duty is to examine the facts and to follow the law. In this case, given all of the information currently available, it is clear to me that this review is the only responsible course of action for me to take."

Holder also stressed that he won't go after government employees who were 'just following orders'—even if those orders resulted in human rights violations. Rather, the investigation might focus on the architects of the protocols, as well as those who fabricated legal justification for the practices that countless experts recognize as torture. This puts Holder in line with his boss, President Barack Obama—who, despite campaign-era promises to see the torture regime dismantled, issued this statement reiterating that he has no interest in pursuing arrests for those CIA "bystanders":

The President has said repeatedly that he wants to look forward, not back, and the President agrees with the Attorney General that those who acted in good faith and within the scope of legal guidance should not be prosecuted.  Ultimately, determinations about whether someone broke the law are made independently by the Attorney General.


That's a very interesting, qualified statement—"agreeing" with Holder without formally supporting his inquiry. But the Obama-Holder relationship might be the most interesting dynamic of the whole affair. The two lawyers have been fast friends and close confidantes since Obama arrived in Washington as a senator in 2005. No doubt they have discussed the issue of torture and intelligence gathering—and in April, both agreed to release the torture memos authored by DOJ lawyers under Bush. But by entrusting Holder to hold him accountable, no matter what, the president has opened up the door to what will be a lengthy and potentially poisonous series of political discussions about torture, human rights, and national security—at a time when the White House is trying to focus its political capital elsewhere.

But recall that in February, Holder went out on his own limb in a brutally honest speech on race relations during Black History Month. Obama wasn't too keen on the call-out. But that's what friends are for.



Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.