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Attorney General Eric Holder at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs Plenum
Washington, D.C. ~ Monday, March 2, 2009

Remarks as prepared for delivery.

Good morning and thank you for inviting me to join you today. It’s a pleasure to be here among friends.

For more than 60 years, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and its partner agencies have worked to build a more just society. But what’s more, JCPA has played a vital role in promoting an interfaith policy dialogue. I applaud the work done by the JCPA to further that dialogue, to engage the public in constructive interfaith discourse, and to always – always – seek justice.

It’s a special privilege for me to lead the Department of Justice at this moment in its history. My Department has many goals to which we aspire. However, nothing is more important to me than defending our nation and its citizens from acts of terrorism, and ensuring that our government abides by the letter and the spirit of our Constitution.

Some see a tension between these two goals. I – most emphatically – do not. As President Obama said in his inaugural address, there is no contradiction between our safety and our ideals. He correctly characterized it as a "false choice." Yes, we must do everything in our power to thwart the evil aims of those who would do us harm. But we must do so in a manner that preserves, protects, and defends the rights that are enshrined in our Constitution, and the rule of law itself.

There is no reason we cannot wage an effective fight against those who have sworn to harm us while we respect our most honored constitutional traditions. We can never put the welfare of the American people at risk but we can also never choose actions that we know will weaken the legal and moral fiber of our nation.

The rule of law is not, as some have seen it, an obstacle to be overcome, but the very foundation of our nation. It is the rule of law that has held us together despite our differences, while other nations have faltered, and it is the rule of law that has made the United States a beacon to the world, a nation that others aspire to emulate.

This is not to say that we have never strayed from our ideals – but we have always returned to them quickly. Some of our greatest presidents, including Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, made decisions in the midst of crisis that history has judged harshly. But the measure of our greatness as a nation is that we have always quickly righted our missteps, reevaluated our judgments, and corrected our policies.

During the Civil War, President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus on eight separate occasions. By the end of the war, Lincoln had suspended the writ throughout the entire United States and authorized his military commanders to detain and imprison any person who was guilty of any "disloyal act or practice."

During World War II, in the months after Pearl Harbor, almost 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent, two-thirds of whom were American citizens, were ordered to leave their homes in California, Washington, Oregon, and Arizona and told to report to detention camps in which they were confined for some three years, surrounded by barbed wire and military police. No charges were ever brought against these men, women, and children. There were no hearings, no findings of sabotage, espionage, or disloyalty. They were ordered to bring only what they could carry. Most families lost everything, most importantly, their liberty.

Although the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the internment order, rejecting the proposition that it was infected by "racial prejudice," this decision has come to be regarded as a dark moment in American constitutional history. In a courageous dissenting opinion, Justice Frank Murphy described the Court’s decision in Korematsu as the "legalization of racism." I do not relate this history in order to criticize, but because it can inform our understanding of the present and the challenges we currently face.

Once again, we are at a crucial juncture in the history of our country. We face a grave threat in the form of an enemy so bent on our destruction that they are willing to sacrifice their own lives in order to take the lives of innocent civilians. Accordingly, since September 11, 2001, there have been many changes made to the way our country seeks to protect itself, and we will continue to explore new ways to keep our fellow citizens safe from harm. But we will ensure that all of the measures we take – new and old – are consistent with the principles and values that have made our nation strong for more than 200 years.

There is no doubt that the challenges before us are extraordinary. But we will not be ruled by fear. We will face the challenges before us without diminishing our respect for the rule of law. We will guard our rights and freedoms while protecting our national security, and by doing so repair our standing in the world and regain the trust of our friends and allies.

As you know, within days of taking the oath of office, President Obama signed several executive orders related to the treatment of detainees and enemy combatants. The first of these executive orders calls for an immediate review of the status of all individuals currently being held at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base and orders the closure of that facility within one year.

This order establishes an interagency task force across all relevant Departments—including our government’s foremost military and security experts—to assemble and examine relevant information, and to make recommendations regarding the proper disposition for each individual currently detained at Guantanamo Bay, including, in some cases, prosecution or transfer consistent with our national security and foreign policy interests.

Last week, I visited Guantanamo Bay and toured the facility. My trip reinforced my belief that while closing the detention center will be no easy task, it is one that must be done. The closure of Guantanamo has come to symbolize – to our citizens and to our global partners – the depth of our commitment to the rule of law. This is why President Obama and I believe that ultimately, closing Guantanamo will make us safer and stronger.

The review process begun by the President’s executive order is already underway. Early last week, the interagency panel reviewed the case of Binyam Mohammed and determined that his transfer, pursuant to an arrangement between the United States and the United Kingdom, was consistent with the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and in the interests of Justice.

The President also ordered an interagency task force to consider the detention of Ali al-Marri. And as many of you know, on Friday, a federal grand jury in the Central District of Illinois returned a two-count indictment charging al-Marri with providing material support to al-Qaeda and conspiring with others to provide material support to al-Qaeda. As I said then, the Department of Justice is resolved to protect the American people in a manner consistent with our values and to prosecute alleged terrorists to the full extent of the law. The President has made it clear – and I couldn’t agree with him more strongly – that we will hold accountable anyone who attempts to harm Americans.

Another of the President’s national security executive orders employs an interagency task force to study options for managing the custody of individuals apprehended in connection with terrorist activities. It is our responsibility to find a solution to this issue that employs the rule of law instead of circumventing it. In developing this solution, the task force will engage Members of Congress, the military, the intelligence community, and others who share the interest of confronting this challenge.

In the process of implementing these executive orders and formulating our policy priorities, the Department of Justice is examining all of our anti-terrorism policies to help define how we confront global terrorism in the years to come. We are certain that there is room for improvement, and we are committed to ensuring that we create a system that is strongly rooted in American values.

While many practices will be subject to review under these executive orders, one in particular will not. As I unequivocally stated in my confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate, waterboarding is torture. My Justice Department will not justify it, rationalize it, or condone it. The sanction of torture is at odds with the history of American jurisprudence and American principles. It undermines our ability to pursue justice fairly, and it puts our own brave soldiers in peril should they ever be captured on a foreign battlefield.

Some have compared the Cold War – which President Kennedy called "our long twilight struggle" – to our current struggle against terrorism. In many ways, this is an apt comparison. The Cold War did not end on a traditional battlefield, and neither will our fight against terrorism. But the comparison is even more compelling because both struggles are ones in which values – ideals and morals – are as important as military strength. As the President has made clear, winning the war on terrorism requires winning the hearts and minds of people around the world. Engaging those hearts and minds is dependent upon our ability to show the world that the United States will once again be a force for positive change in the lives of people across the globe. We must accomplish that goal by setting an example with our ideals, and by rebuilding our partnerships with our allies. We cannot ask other nations to stand by us in a pursuit of justice if we are not viewed as being in pursuit of that ideal ourselves.

I have no doubt that our devotion to this country’s founding principles – and to the rule of law – are strong enough to withstand the challenges we face, as they have withstood so many challenges before. History teaches us that the rule of law and our stature in the world are inextricably linked. From the trials at Nuremburg to our victory in the Cold War, our respect for the rule of law has been a powerful tool for promoting our national interest on the international stage. To continue our leading role on that stage, we must adhere to our country’s core principles and to its most treasured values. This is our nation’s challenge.

Too often over the past decade, the fight against terrorism has been viewed as a zero-sum battle with our civil liberties. Not only is that school of thought misguided, I fear that in actuality it does more harm than good. I have often said that the test of a great nation is whether it will adhere to its core values not only when it is easy, but also when it is hard. Well, ladies and gentlemen, I have every confidence that we will pass that test. With the support and guidance of Americans like you, no difficulties, no challenges, and no hurdles will deter us from our solemn responsibility to protect our people while we also protect our principles.

Thank you very much.

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