The 5 Biggest Controversies of Eric Holder's Term as Attorney General

From Fast and Furious to the 9/11 mastermind, Holder's most-disputed moves.

ByABC News
September 25, 2014, 5:15 PM
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder delivers a keynote speech at New York University's law school, Sept. 23, 2014, in New York.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder delivers a keynote speech at New York University's law school, Sept. 23, 2014, in New York.
Julio Cortez / AP Photo

— -- intro: Almost as soon as he was confirmed, it was clear that Attorney General Eric Holder’s tenure would be beset by controversy.

In February 2009, his provocative statement -- “in things racial we have always been and I believe continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards” -- roiled many.

As one of President Obama’s longest-serving and most-trusted advisers, Holder, who today announced he would step down from the post he has held for five-and-a-half years, has long been a favorite punching bag for the right.

Here’s a look at the five biggest controversies during his time at the Justice Department.

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As one of president Obama’s longest-serving and most-trusted advisers, Holder has long been a favorite punching bag for the right.

Here’s a look at the five biggest controversies during his time at the Justice Department:

quicklist:1title:9/11 MASTERMINDStext:If Holder had his way, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, might now be on death row. But staunch political opposition to Holder's plan to prosecute Mohammed in a Manhattan civilian court prevented the attorney general from carrying out what he thought was a “highly-detailed, formidable case” in a federal court just blocks from Ground Zero, which would have intensified the trial even more. Instead, Mohammed is still waiting in Guantanamo Bay after Holder shifted his case to military courts at the detention center in 2011, bowing to legislation that bars Guantanamo inmates from traveling to the U.S.

He told Yahoo News this week in an interview, “I will say that if my recommendation had been followed, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his confederates would be on death row right now. Right now.”

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quicklist:2title:MONITORING THE PRESS text:Among a number of controversies during his tenure involving journalists, Holder had to temper public anger in 2013 over the Justice Department’s seizure of Associated Press phone records resulting from an AP article in May 2012.

Holder believed the article on a terrorist plot in Yemen threatened American security, and defended the Justice Department’s need to vet the AP correspondence.

The president of The Associated Press claimed he kept the story from publication until government officials had confirmed there were no national security concerns that could have resulted from the article, and White House secretary Jay Carney insisted President Obama remained a faithful guardian of First Amendment rights.

Holder’s argument came just years after dropping charges against former Justice Department lawyer Thomas Tamm, who leaked details of a Bush administration wiretapping program to the New York Times. Also in 2013, Holder denied attempting to prosecute journalists after reports revealed the Justice Department was monitoring Fox News reporter James Rosen following a story he published in 2009 on 25756073

quicklist:3title:OPERATION FAST AND FURIOUStext:In a gunrunning sting gone awry, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives lost an estimated 1,400 weapons in Mexico -- including two guns that resurfaced at the murder scene of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry in December 2010. The following May, Holder, who technically oversees ATF, testified before the House Judiciary Committee that he had only known about the sting, dubbed “Operation Fast & Furious,” for a few weeks. But after investigators uncovered memos on Fast & Furious sent to Holder in July 2010, congressional Republicans cried foul. According to the Justice Department, however, Holder never read the memos – and an IG report later “found no evidence that Department or ATF staff informed Holder about Operation Fast and Furious prior to 2011.”

Holder repeatedly denied a DOJ cover-up, saying only, “This operation was flawed in concept, as well as in execution.” Bolstered by Obama’s assertion of executive privilege, which prevented future prosecution, Holder refused to turn over documents related to Fast and Furious, infuriating Congressional Republicans, who accused him of concealing administration failures. He was held in contempt of Congress in June 2012, marking the first time an attorney general has been held in criminal contempt. media: 25756744

quicklist:4title:GAY MARRIAGEtext:In 2011, the attorney general said he won’t defend Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which rules that federal interpretation of “marriage” applies only to heterosexual couples. Last year, Holder told ABC News, “From my perspective, [gay marriage] is really the latest civil-rights issue.” So when six state attorneys general said they would not defend laws that ban gay marriage, Holder did not step in. Instead, Holder said they didn’t have to defend the laws if they believed they were unconstitutional.

Holder’s handling of the matter did not sit well with former Justice Department officials, who believed the actions of Obama’s attorney general were anti-democratic. A U.S. attorney general, as head of the Justice Department, is responsible for enforcing federal laws. One critic of Holder, former Virginia Solicitor General William H. Hurd said, “These are important issues, but the job of an attorney general is not to act as a judge and decide them. His job is to act as an advocate and defend the laws enacted through the democratic process.”media: 25756272

quicklist:5title:DRUG CRIMEStext:In 2013, Holder modified the Justice Department’s sentencing policy for low-level, drug-related crimes out of belief that they were discriminatory and destabilizing.

“Let’s be honest: Some of the enforcement priorities that we have set have had a destabilizing effect on particular communities ... largely poor and of color, and [have been] applied inappropriately,” Holder said in a speech.

In the past, mandatory minimum sentences were implemented to discourage drug use and reduce racially-biased sentences. Holder mandated the modification so that low-level, non-violent drug offenders with no ties to gangs or cartels would no longer be charged with offenses that “impose draconian, mandatory” sentences, and would instead be sentenced on an individual basis. Since the modification last year, the federal prison population dropped by 4,800 ... the first time the prison population declined since 1980. media: 25757773