U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder addressed an audience of approximately 850 people at the University of Maine on Friday. Holder told the audience that President Barack Obama is still committed to repealing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, closing Guantanamo Bay Prison and will not pursue prosecution of medical marijuana users.
Holder spoke as the guest of the William S. Cohen Lecture Series. He touched on the defense department, anti-terrorism efforts, the war in Afghanistan and U.S. politics. Cohen, a former senator and secretary of defense, introduced Holder, who answered questions from the audience and attended a brief session with reporters after the meeting.
“The president has indicated that we will take the necessary steps to repeal both DOMA and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Holder said, who was cut off by an immediate round of applause.
Holder said briefs released by the justice department in support of the Defense of Marriage Act, which contradict Obama’s position, have confused many people.
“Though I fully support what the president has said — that is the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the repeal of DOMA — I have a responsibility as attorney general to support the statute,” Holder said.
After the lecture, a reporter asked Holder about his views on Question 1, a people’s veto concerning same-sex marriage in Maine.
“[The president and I] are of the view it is for states to make these decisions. That federal law [DOMA] is not necessarily a good piece of legislation, and we are going to work to repeal it,” Holder said.
In response to a question during the lecture, Holder said it has been difficult to meet the president’s deadline for closing Guantanamo Bay but that “Guantanamo will be closed.” He said the prison has served as a terrorism recruiting tool by souring the United States’ image, and that the federal government hopes to have it closed by Jan. 22 or some time soon after.
During the comment session after the lecture, Holder said the president is of the opinion that federal resources are better used elsewhere, rather than prosecuting people who are obeying state marijuana laws.
Concerning health care reform, Holder said Obama will continue to seek the support of Maine’s republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe.
“I think that the president is trying to reach across the aisle for support wherever he can find it,” Holder said. “Given the nature of our health care system, the problems that we have now and the problems that you can project out in terms of cost — it seems to me that this is something that I would hope will not be seen as in a partisan way; [this] will be viewed as something that could ultimately be of great benefit to the American people. I think the question is right though, that there is going to be a heavy focus on the two senators from Maine, and our hope would be that we will be able to craft a bill that they would support.”
Cohen responded to a question after the lecture about Obama’s pending decision on whether or not to send more troops to Afghanistan.
“Counterterrorism is when you’re hunting down and trying to capture or kill the very people that are trying to harm you,” Cohen said. “Counterinsurgency has to do with winning hearts and minds. You don’t win hearts and minds by launching hellfire missiles from unmanned drones into populated areas trying to kill certain individuals; you end up creating more insurgents and terrorists than you started out with.”
Cohen said terrorism is a global issue that affects all nations, not just the United States. He said reflection on past mistakes is a requisite in the president’s decision on Afghanistan, but he hopes reflection does not turn into irresolution.
“It’s the world community’s war,” Cohen said.
Cohen turned to the political debates raging across America. He said, “We are doing enormous damage to ourselves,” because of the way political debates are in the United States.
“It’s important that we have debate. It’s important that we have philosophical division and contention, but the debate that I have seen taking place is degrading. It is turning into a Tower of Babel. It is turning into a chaotic situation where only those voices who shout the loudest or make the most outrageous statements to get media attention,” Cohen said, cut off by a round of applause.
“All of the countries that I travel to, they look at the United States and they wonder if we should still be taken seriously. They look at the quality of the debate; they look at how petty and how irrelevant and how poisonous the atmosphere is and they wonder, can the United States continue to be a leader throughout the world?”
In response to a question regarding Obama’s vetting process for a running mate, Holder, who helped with the selection, announced that Cohen had been a candidate for vice president.
“Secretary Cohen doesn’t really know how close he came in the process. He had one problem though: He was John McCain’s best man at his wedding.”
One audience member asked whether the attorney general would investigate former president George W. Bush or members of his administration for possibly breaking the law during Bush’s time in office.
“The position that we have taken is that no one is above the law,” Holder said. “There are Office of Legal Counsel opinions that, frankly, I don’t agree with and that have been repealed by this administration, under which many people in our intelligence committee operated. It is my belief, it is the president’s belief, that it would be inappropriate to prosecute people who acted in good faith and in good performance with those OLC opinions.”
Holder said he has appointed prosecutor John H. Durham to investigate the Bush administration.
“If we find that people did go beyond those limits, prosecution of the people will be considered,” Holder said.
During the press meeting after the lecture, Holder was asked whether counterterrorism efforts had hurt conventional law enforcement efforts. Holder said he did not think so.
“I do think that I’ve come back to a justice department that’s different from the one that I left in 2001,” Holder said. “There is a national security focus in the department that makes a lot of sense, given what we’ve seen after 9/11 and continuing threats. The concern that I have is that we have not devoted the attention and the resources, in the past, to what I have come to call the traditional parts of the department.”
At the beginning of the lecture, Holder said, “Protecting this nation is my No. 1 priority.”
“We cannot afford to become complacent, nor can we lose sight of our values,” Holder said. “We cannot abandon the rules of law.”
In response to a question about the future of the Republican Party, Cohen said, “The party has drifted too far to the right. As a result of that, we’re going to be a very aggressive, very narrow band of people who represent the party that think that it’s been a mistake not to reach out to embrace those of more moderate views of the republican party philosophy. When I am asked whether I am still a Republican, I say, ‘Yes. I am a Maine Republican.’”
“Our country is at its best when it has provided the beacon of light of the rule of law for all the world to see,” Holder said.
Holder spoke of the federal investigation of a Colorado man who has been accused of plotting terrorist actions. He used it as an example of the work the defense department is conducting to combat terrorism.
“This plot was serious; it was developed,” Holder said.
Holder said the plot could have cost American lives if it had not been stopped.
“We can’t rest for even one minute, and we will not,” Holder said.