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Whose side is Holder on?

Christie Pesavento | Monday, September 28, 2009

Last month, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department will investigate whether Bush-era CIA agents should face prosecution for suspected prisoner abuse. His statement came on the heels of the Department’s release of a 2004 report from the agency’s inspector general describing the alleged use of harsh interrogation practices, with both decisions sparking fury among conservatives as well as CIA Director Leon Panetta, a Democrat and an Obama appointee.

Critics received support from seven former CIA directors on Sept. 19, who requested that the president call off the criminal probe in a letter to the White House. These seven directors served under both Republican and Democratic presidents.

“This approach will seriously damage the willingness of many other intelligence officers to take risks to protect the country,” the letter states. “In our judgment such risk-taking is vital to success in the long and difficult fight against the terrorists who continue to threaten us.”

This latest debacle is not the first time Holder has interfered in a situation involving imprisoned terrorists, nor is it the first time he has chosen to argue on their behalf.

During the final days of the Clinton administration, for instance, Holder was one of those responsible for making recommendations on who should receive executive pardons. Among the recipients of such pardons were former Weather Underground members Susan Rosenberg and Linda Evans. Rosenberg was caught in possession of 740 pounds of dynamite she intended to use to carry out terrorist attacks, and Evans was imprisoned for conspiring to bomb the U.S. Capitol in addition to using false identification to buy weapons and harboring a fugitive.

Yet the most alarming of Holder’s actions involves his efforts to win clemency for a group of terrorists known as FALN.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, members of the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN is the Spanish acronym), a paramilitary group seeking Puerto Rican independence from the U.S. through violent means, carried out a series of brutal attacks on American targets that included bombings, arson, armed robberies, kidnappings and prison escapes. The most horrific of these attacks occurred in 1975, when a bomb exploded inside a tavern in Manhattan during the lunch-hour rush, killing four and injuring 60 innocent bystanders.

The eventual capture and conviction of individual FALN members halted their reign of terror. Then in 1999, President Bill Clinton offered clemency to 16 of the prisoners. Those who had worked tirelessly to put them behind bars were livid, along with family members of those slain.

But it wasn’t until January of 2009, during Holder’s confirmation hearings, that the public learned of the details surrounding our current attorney general’s role in Clinton’s contentious decision.

In 1993, a self-identified human rights organization calling itself “Ofensiva ’92” filed a petition for clemency on behalf of the imprisoned FALN members because the prisoners, according to a House Committee on Government Reform report, “refused to take part in any process that would legitimize the government’s actions against them, therefore they refused to file their own petitions.” Under normal circumstances, the Justice Department only considers clemency if a prisoner files a petition. Officials were apparently willing to make an exception in this case, however, because the petition portrayed the prisoners as innocent freedom fighters rather than violent terrorists.

In fact, the prisoners were described in the aforementioned congressional report as “very unlikely candidates for clemency” on the grounds that “they did not admit to wrongdoing and they had not renounced violence before such a renunciation had been made a quid pro quo for their release. They expressed no contrition for their crimes, and were at times openly belligerent about their actions.”

Perhaps the most telling line in the report proclaimed, “The White House seemed to want clemency more than the terrorists.”

But these circumstances did little to deter Holder, who was serving as deputy attorney general at the time. After previous efforts by Ofensiva ’92 failed, they managed to win Holder’s sympathy, and he spent months actively negotiating with FALN supporters pushing for clemency.

Moreover, according to documents and interviews that remained undisclosed up until his confirmation hearings last January, Holder ordered his staff at the Office of the Pardon Attorney to replace its original report opposing any commutation of the sentences with a new one favoring clemency for at least half of the prisoners. Upon encountering resistance, Holder’s chief of staff suggested the attorneys draft a neutral memo laying out possible options. This little maneuver effectively enabled Clinton to grant clemency while avoiding the appearance of conflict with the Justice Department.

Thanks to his repeated efforts to convince subordinates at the Justice Department to drop their opposition to the grant, Holder got exactly what he wanted: clemency for the terrorists and political cover for the president.

Now, as the U.S. Attorney General, Holder is again taking the side of the terrorists while taking measures to shield his boss from the brunt of criticism.

Of course this does not necessarily mean that Holder is intentionally choosing to side with those who wish to do innocent Americans harm; perhaps he has had a change of heart after the fallout from the Clinton pardons and is now acting out of genuine concern for the law. Recently, however, the Washington Post reported that Holder “did not read detailed memos that prosecutors drafted . . . to explain their decision to decline prosecution” of the CIA officials, suggesting he was more determined to carry out his own plans than to do what the law requires. This disturbing pattern of behavior that assumes the U.S. is at fault cannot and should not simply be dismissed outright, especially wøhen national security is at stake.

Christie Pesavento is a senior who is majoring in political science and sociology. She can be reached at cpesaven@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.