NEWS BRIEFING WITH DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER
TRANSCRIPT BY FEDERAL NEWS SERVICE, 620 NATIONAL PRESS BUILDING, WASHINGTON, DC 20045.
FEDERAL NEWS SERVICE IS A PRIVATE FIRM AND IS NOT AFFILIATED WITH THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT.
COPYRIGHT ©1999 BY FEDERAL NEWS SERVICE, INC., WASHINGTON, DC 20045 USA. NO PORTION OF THIS TRANSCRIPT MAY BE COPIED, SOLD OR RETRANSMITTED WITHOUT THE WRITTEN AUTHORITY OF FEDERAL NEWS SERVICE, INC.
COPYRIGHT IS NOT CLAIMED AS TO ANY PART OF THE ORIGINAL WORK PREPARED BY A UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT OFFICER OR EMPLOYEE AS A PART OF THAT PERSON'S OFFICIAL DUTIES.
FOR INFORMATION ON SUBSCRIBING TO THE FNS INTERNET SERVICE, PLEASE EMAIL JACK GRAEME AT INFO@FNSG.COM OR CALL (202)824-0520.
MR. HOLDER: Good morning.
Later today I will join the president, Senator Biden, Senator Leahy, Congressman Conyers and America's law enforcement heroes, the Top Cops of the National Association of Police Officers, in a ceremony to honor all that law enforcement does for all of us here in America.
This is, I think, a particularly timely event. As you know, this past Sunday, the FBI announced that crime has dropped for a seventh straight year and is now at its lowest level since 1973. Crime, and especially violent crime, is down in every region, and it is down in every category.
And there is certainly no one reason for these reductions, but I count among them the hard work of law enforcement and President Clinton's visionary plan to put 100,000 new police officers on America's streets. We have made grants to fund all 100,000 of these officers, and over 55,000 of these officers are already on the street helping to protect the public.
It is also clear that our policies regarding gun violence are working. Violent crime with firearms have been reduced by more than 35 percent since 1992. The Brady law has kept guns out of the hands of over 400,000 felons, fugitives and stalkers. There is a closer coordination between law enforcement agencies, and there are more prosecutions of gun criminals today than there were when this administration began in 1992.
But we cannot become complacent. If we let up, crime could bounce back up again. And that is why we need to continue funding the COPS Program, and it is why we are working to implement the president's gun violence reduction strategy.
Now under that strategy, each U.S. attorney throughout the country is putting in place a plan to reduce gun violence in their area, working with ATF and state and local partners. Together, these partnerships are developing strategies that respond to local concerns and assign gun prosecutions to the entity that can most effectively punish the gun offender. Under this approach, in the last year, 34 percent more high-end gun offenders went to federal prison than in 1992.
The fact that we must keep crime going down is also why we need to call on Congress to act. And we need Congress to pass the common- sense gun safety legislation that is in the Senate and that has been passed in the Senate by a bipartisan vote. We need to extend the Brady law protection to gun shows and flea markets and deny guns to those who committed violent offenses as juveniles, require child- safety locks on handguns and give law enforcement the tools that it needs to further reduce gun crime. We also need to have the COPS Program fully funded.
Yesterday was six months since the tragedy at Columbine.
We need gun safety legislation now.
Q Mr. Holder, do you have any thoughts about why violence committed with guns is down so much since '92? Is it just that all crimes are going down and therefore guns go with it, or is there -- is it -- is something special going on with reference to guns specifically?
MR. HOLDER: I think it's probably a combination of both. I mean, I think the efforts that we have made to reduce crime generally has had an effect on the use of firearms, but I also think the specific things that we have done with regard -- targeting gun violence have been effective -- the fact that we have emphasized in a way that it was not done before working with our state and local partners, so that we target in the federal side these high-end offenders, people who get five years or more -- those prosecutions are up pretty substantially -- the effect of getting guns out of the hands, through the Brady act -- out of the hands of felons, fugitives, stalkers, people with mental problems. I think all of that has contributed to the drop in firearm offenses.
Q Well, is that because -- you talk about these high-end offenses, serious crimes that would generally get a lot of attention in the criminal justice system anyway. Are you saying it's because more of them are going into -- getting stiffer sentences in federal court, like Project Exile? Or what is it that's special about these high-end offenses, and how is it getting more guns off the street?
MR. HOLDER: High-end offenders are people with criminal histories -- for instance, people who have greater amounts of -- greater number of incidents, criminal incidents, in their background; people who are more likely to be repeat offenders. Those are the people we have taken into the federal system, where they can be taken off the streets on a pre-trial basis, where they get longer sentences, where the chances for parole are substantially less. I think all of that has had a very positive impact.
Q Mr. Holder, the NRA is running around complaining about the decline in federal firearms prosecutions.
MR. HOLDER: Right.
Q They don't talk about state and locals.
MR. HOLDER: Right.
Q But a lot of people I've talked to think that their argument's been effective. Has it hurt y'all's efforts up on Capitol Hill -- the NRA?
MR. HOLDER: Well, I think among those people who want to -- who tend to support the gun lobby, that gives them a hook. But I think any objective observer will see that what we've done -- we made a very conscious decision to work with our state and local partners in a way that has not happened before, which is to have the federal government concentrate on what I've called before the high-level gun offenders, work with our state and local counterparts so that they could concentrate on other people carrying weapons, carrying guns.
I mean, yeah, you know, if you look at just the number of overall federal gun prosecutions, they were higher, I guess, in '92, maybe '91, something like that, but the number of overall offenses, gun offenses, in the United States was higher at that time. So it seems to me the strategy that we have employed is effective.
Q (Off mike) -- the moderates you're going to need to pass some of this gun legislation?
MR. HOLDER: I mean, I hope it is. It's certainly something that I have taken with me every time I've been up there, and we will continue to try to get that message out.
Q Another thing you hear, the Republicans are saying Dick Gephardt wants the issue, he doesn't want legislation. And then the Democrats will tell you the Republicans aren't for seriously negotiating. They're enthralled with the gun lobby. Are you going to be able to break through that kind of political stalemate that's up there? I mean, realistically, do you think anything is going to happen on guns before the election?
MR. HOLDER: I mean, I would certainly hope so. You know, one of the realities is that we are dealing with the safety of the American people here and I would hope that people get beyond whatever their political concerns are and do that which makes sense and that which will make the American people safer than they are now.
Q Mr. Holder, if I could take you back to yesterday --
MR. HOLDER: Why don't we do that, if we could just stay on --
(Cross talk.) (Laughter.)
Q One of the things that does give the NRA a little traction is where they talk about the fact that there are few prosecutions when people make an attempt to illegally buy a gun. They fill out the report, they lie on the report or whatever, and they wonder why there aren't more prosecutions there. Is it simply a matter of resources, or is that -- do you consider that a total waste of time?
MR. HOLDER: No, not a total waste of time and, in fact, it is something that I've talked to the U.S. attorneys about. I think we're going to see an increased number of those prosecutions, though we don't have the ability to prosecute every one of those cases. I mean, if we prosecuted all 400,000 people who filed those false statements, that would overwhelm the system.
What we have to do is to prioritize and go after those people who are most dangerous, which is not to say that anybody should feel that they're going to get a pass if you fill out a false statement in trying to get a gun. I think you will see the numbers of those prosecutions rise, though.
Q Mr. Holder, after every catastrophic event when kids are killed at schools or at a day care center there's a tremendous impetus, there's a lot of energy to pass anti-gun violence legislation. This gets dissipated rather quickly. It goes up to Capitol Hill, it gets mugged and tied up in the closet.
MR. HOLDER: That's a good way of putting it. Mugged.
Q Mugged and tied up!
Q There doesn't seem to be a political price for allowing this to dissipate. How do you break out of this cycle? How do you convince people on Capitol Hill that this is genuinely what is needed and that there's a political price to pay if you don't, you know --
MR. HOLDER: Well, I'm not sure that there's necessarily a dissipation in the sense that we've been pretty consistent, I think, in the administration, regardless of the incidents, to say that this is a serious issue, one that needs to be addressed.
You know, I've spent a lot of time up there and on talk shows trying to keep talking about this issue, trying to convince people in Congress that this is an issue that needs to be addressed.
You know -- is there going to be a political price? I mean, that's for, I guess, the American people to decide. The overwhelming majority of them seem to support the very common-sense things that we have been talking about for, you know, months and years at this point. And whether or not that puts people at political risk, I guess we'll see next November.
Q Now another topic?
Q Well, can I just ask another? Are there any pieces of the package that's being hashed out on the Hill now that you would drop in order to get a larger -- in order to get something through at this point, whether it's the gun shows or the child safety locks? Is that kind of negotiation -- are you open to that kind of negotiation at this point?
MR. HOLDER: I guess we're always willing to negotiate. I wouldn't say that I'd be willing to drop one piece or another. On the other hand, I think there are people on both sides who are working in good faith to craft something. I know Chairman Hyde, for instance, I think is actually trying to put something together. And I certainly applaud those efforts. But I think in terms of the substance, you know -- object A, object B, object C -- I mean, I think we need to keep all of those, the components of the package, together, but there might be some tinkering we could do as to how they might be implemented. And I think those are the kinds of things, as I said, that Chairman Hyde is trying to do.
Q Are you familiar with what he's put on the table regarding gun shows?
MR. HOLDER: Yeah, I've heard -- you know, I've been keeping up.
Q It's subject to some controversy about what it really is. What do you think about what -- his proposal?
MR. HOLDER: I'm enamored more of some of the other things that he's been doing more than the gun show thing. I think that, you know, we have -- but again, I think we want to continue to talk about, you know, all these possibilities.
Q Yesterday --
MR. HOLDER: Let's go back.
Q Okay. Basically, now that the five-year interagency counterterrorism and technology crime plan was released yesterday under Ms. Reno's name, can you tell me, does the Justice Department now at this point -- is it opposed to what was done with regard to the clemency of the FALN terrorists?
MR. HOLDER: Well, let me make clear, I mean, it's what I knew yesterday but didn't have the dates in my mind and so I really could not share with the committee what I wanted. I mean, that report was actually issued in December of 1998. The document they had up there was something that has been prepared in anticipation of a conference that's going to be held, I believe later this month, early next month. So that the statement about the release -- I guess it says the impending release of members of these groups, something along those lines, obviously did not anticipate and does not include the people who have now received -- who have had their sentences commuted. And so what I was trying to tell the committee yesterday was that the attorney general's report clearly did not refer to those people, given the fact that they have, as a condition of their release, renounced violence.
Q Which ones -- which were they talking about? Who was about to be released?
MR. HOLDER: Well, at that point, they were talking about the possibility that people from among other groups, the FALN, were going to be released over the next few years. As I have talked to people who prepared to the report, partly we are talking about people over the next three or four years who might be getting out of prison. And I think --
Q As a result -- (inaudible) -- the sentences?
MR. HOLDER: Right.
Q How many people --
MR. HOLDER: But I think the thing that is significant is that we are dealing with a fundamentally different concept of where you have people released after they have pledged not to use violence in support of their political activities.
Q And do you personally favor this FALN amnesty that was granted by the White House? Did you personally -- were you for that or against that?
MR. HOLDER: Well, as I just told the committee yesterday, the president has asserted executive privilege in this regard. And as the result of that, we in the Justice Department can't really express our views. But I mean, I obviously shared my views with the president on that. I can't --
Q Did -- the Justice Department ever favor or oppose or have a stand with regard to those events?
MR. HOLDER: As I indicated yesterday, we filed a report in December of '96, and there were subsequent communications with the White House. And we really can't say much more than that.
Q When the release was granted, did you know by name any of the ones that was apparently -- (inaudible) --
MR. HOLDER: I don't know. No, I don't know that. I mean, maybe I'll be able to get you some more information on that. But I mean, you know, there were certain people who were due to be released or who were at least eligible for parole or had release dates in the next, as I said, three or four years. I don't know exactly who they were. Maybe -- we might be able to get you that information.
Q So just to clarify, the '96 report -- you say December '96 report to the White House did take a position on the FALN matter, on the clemency issue?
MR. HOLDER: Yeah; I mean, i this -- we complied with the regulation, which is the regulations that govern the commutation- pardon process.
Q You don't -- (inaudible) -- well, Senator Hatch said yesterday that the 1999 submission to the White House did not take a position; it wasn't announced -- (inaudible). You can't comment directly on that because of it was privileged, you said yesterday. But under the regulation, do you believe that the Justice Department had to take a thumbs-up or thumbs-down position in providing guidance to the president? Or can the Justice Department fulfill its regulatory duties by providing an analysis?
MR. HOLDER: It's an interesting question.
I am not sure that there is a -- I am not sure that under the regulation, there is a requirement that we take a position, I am not sure -- I'd have to look at that, but I am not sure that that -- that we have to.
That might be something, though, that we'd better look at the regulations themselves to see exactly what they say. But I don't think we have to take a position. But I'm not sure about that.
Q That is the -- while the attorney general's report -- the five-year report that was released yesterday may not have been referring to these individuals specifically who received conditional clemency, there did seem to be a reference to the group of which they were a part. And I think it's a little bit confusing to try to understand what the position is of -- we know what the FBI position is, for example, in the draft letter from Director Freeh. It's a little confusing to figure out what the attorney general's position is. Maybe you can help us -- tell us what your position is on the FALN. At this point in time, does the FALN itself, as this report indicates, pose a threat to (sic) domestic terrorism?
MR. HOLDER: Clearly the organization is still one about which we have concerns, and that's -- you know, that indication -- that's indicated in the report, that -- the five-year counterterrorism report.
The question is -- in the testimony, you know, that I gave yesterday is, what about these individuals? And it seems to me they've given their statements renouncing violence, given the supervision that they are under as a result of their release, that they are in a different category from the organization itself.
Q You have the subsequent communications in 1999 with the White House. Did they reference the December 1996 recommendation? In other words, if the '99 communications were only an analysis and not an actual recommendation, do they reference the earlier recommendation or incorporate that earlier recommendation by reference?
MR. HOLDER: I'll tell you, in response to this question and in anticipation of other ones, what I can't do, I don't think it's appropriate to do, would be to comment on what the nature of the communications we had with the White House was in 1999. Again, I think privilege would prevent that from occurring.
Q And can you address what it is exactly? Because there's a little confusion, I think. At least your prepared testimony yesterday did not talk about contemplated changes in notifying victims. What is it exactly that you, that Justice, the White House are doing in terms of changes on that?
MR. HOLDER: Just looking at the regulations to make sure that we make victims, survivors a part of the clemency/pardon/commutation process in a way that the regulations do not now require to occur.
I think we were all concerned, given the desire of this administration to make sure that victims are heard, that the regulations now, I don't think, adequately bring them into the process. And so we are going to be looking, with the White House, at modifying those regulations.
Q Mr. Holder, what do you make of some of the allegations that the Justice Department sidestepped its own rules and regulations in terms of making whatever recommendation or analysis that it did? And is that a fair allegation?
MR. HOLDER: I don't think it's fair at all. We complied with the regulations as they exist, which -- We came up with a recommendation back in December of '96, followed the regulations, and as I indicated, there were subsequent communications with the White House in the months after that recommendation.
Q Beyond the recommendations, what about the Justice Department's own internal handling of the clemency issue?
There was some allegation yesterday that the department gave these folks a considerable leg up, helped them prepare their documents, allowed them to, in essence, skip some of the steps in the process.
MR. HOLDER: No, that's not true. It's true that the petition for clemency was filed by the attorneys for this group.
That is, as Roger Adams indicated, unusual but not unprecedented. In all other ways, I think everything -- all the interaction, for instance, that I had with groups who were supporting the clemency petitions, by interaction with the congressmen, is consistent with what we do and what I have done in a whole variety of topics, including commutations and pardons with regard to other individuals. So I don't think there was anything really fundamentally different from the way we normally do things.
Q So there was nothing in the process that could invalidate or call into question the validity of those pardons? I mean, especially with regard to the initiation of the pardons not being on the part of those who were granted clemency?
MR. HOLDER: No, I don't think so. As I indicated yesterday, I think, you know, the power of the president in this area is actually pretty broad. I'm not sure anybody would have the power to invalidate them, but I don't think that anybody ought to be concerned that anything truly out of the ordinary occurred in this process.
Q Mr. Holder, that just brings -- back to another topic, namely Waco. It's now apparent that members of the Civil Division who knew about the use of incendiary devices and may know facts about Waco that are potentially -- politically, at least -- damaging to the department's credibility.
And I'm wondering if you've made any effort to debrief them, and do you feel that they comported themselves well in their handling of this sensitive information?
MR. HOLDER: Well, I mean -- we have -- you know, Senator Danforth is out there with his examination, his inquiry, and I don't want to say anything that would in any way affect that. But I think people in the Justice Department, in the Civil Division, have, I think, done, you know, a good job. I have not debriefed them. I have not seen any reports of any debriefings of them. But I'm pretty confident that, based on what I do know, that, you know, our people acted appropriately in that regard.
Q In your supervising -- what Reno has told us repeatedly in here when we've asked her about Waco is that that's Mr. Holder's purview. There is some aspect of this that is -- you know, the government's defense of itself in the civil case, and that is something that presumably you have, you know, oversight over. And I'm just wondering if, you know, given what's happened, if you feel like you know what they're doing in that civil case. Do you feel confident that, you know, they're defending the government's interests? Do you see, you know, do you see any difficulties for them insofar as they've got to defend the government's interest and they still have to cooperate with Danforth's inquiry, and all the political fallout that may come from that?
MR. HOLDER: Well, I mean, I'm comfortable with the positions that we have taken in court. You know, I'm satisfied with the work that the lawyers have done. And you're right, there are some complications. This is an unusual case, in that there is the Danforth inquiry and, you know, we're trying to work with Senator Danforth. There's obviously a great deal of public interest in this. We've got to -- you know, you deal with that as well. But I think, given all those things, that our folks are actually doing, I think, a pretty good job.
Q Mr. Holder, there's been a considerable number of allegations recently, in the last couple of weeks, from people, independent analysts and so forth, who say they believe shots were fired by federal agents at the day of the fire. And I'm wondering if that -- if the department has looked at that again or if that's entirely in Mr. Danforth's hands.
And do you remain confident at this point, based on everything you know, that no federal agency did fire any shots?
MR. HOLDER: I mean, you know, based on what I know, yeah, I remain confident in that regard. But again, that's, you know, something that Senator Danforth, I'm sure, will be looking at and will, you know, hopefully put finally to rest the concerns that people have about may have happened at Waco. And that's why I think it's important that he be allowed time to gather the facts, file his report, and we want to help him, you know, in that regard.
Q Mr. Holder, in terms of these -- (off mike) -- tapes or infrared tapes that were apparently down at Quantico, how concerned is the department that these tapes only, you know, recently came out and that there are additional tapes, apparently, that go beyond the ones that were released, concerning the potentially pyrotechnic devices?
MR. HOLDER: Well, you know, obviously it would have been -- this whole thing would have been -- we'd have been a lot better served if all of the information had been disclosed, you know, at the same time and a long time ago. I don't think that anything that we have seen, at least so far, has, you know, changed the essential FBI assertions. And you know, hopefully there are not any other disclosures that -- any other surprises out there. I don't think that there are.
Q Eric, how often are representatives of the department meeting with Senator Danforth's representatives? I know with Judge Starr you met fairly often.
MR. HOLDER: Yes.
Q Are you having that same type of a relationship, and --
MR. HOLDER: Yeah, we actually interact with them, I would say, on almost probably a daily basis at the staff level.
A couple of guys in my office -- I can get their names -- but, I mean, a couple of people in my office talk to people on Danforth's staff, I think, probably almost on a daily basis.
Q Is basically the conversation just in terms of logistics, or types of funds needed, resources needed, that type of thing?
MR. HOLDER: Yeah, we haven't really talked, I think -- they have not submitted a budget yet. But I think it's really kind of logistical things, trying to make sure -- trying to expedite things for them, trying to help them get access to materials that they might want to have access to, just asking -- answering questions about DOJ procedures, things of that nature. I think the relationship is a pretty good one, so far.
Q Mr. Holder --
Q (Off mike.)
Q Go ahead.
Q Have you gotten a sense of how long this investigation will take -- Senator Danforth's investigation?
MR. HOLDER: No. I don't -- no idea.
Q Mr. Holder, are you aware of the witness of retired Colonel Rodney Rollings (sp), who was there on the morning that the gassing -- when the gassing proceeded, and heard from the control area the audiotapes of almost everything that was going on in the house, up to the time that the fires were set, that -- are you aware the FBI knew that these -- that the Davidians were going to burn themselves up?
And do you know where those tapes went?
MR. HOLDER: That's going a little beyond my realm of knowledge. I am not sure I know about that.
Q Do you know anything about what Rodney Rawlings (sp) has witnessed in the Dallas Morning News?
MR. HOLDER: That doesn't ring any bells with me. I mean, I am not familiar with that.
Q All right.
Q Michael -- (inaudible) -- lawyer said that he wants to stage a reenactment of the Waco siege.
MR. HOLDER: Right.
Q You have some serious doubts. (Fire alarm rings.) Gunfire. Real quick -- (inaudible) -- (laughter, cross talk) --
Q Saved by the bell. (Laughter.)
MR. HOLDER: I am sorry. He wants the reenactment?
Q He wants to stage a reenactment. I mean, is that a possibility? Is that something you are considering at this point?
Would you go along with that kind of plan? And also, how would it effect Senator Danforth's investigation? (Fire alarm continues.)
MR. HOLDER: I only heard about this, I guess, this morning or late yesterday. You know, we'll try the case in court.
Whether our people want to do that as part of a court proceeding -- I mean, I don't know. I'd let them look at it, at least in the first instance.
MR. HOLDER: Thank you. (Laughter, cross talk.)