Press Conference


Thursday, December 18, 1997


(9:30 a.m.)

MR. HOLDER: Good morning.

As I left last night, I saw Beverly walking out. And she said she was not going to be here. So she made me promise not to make any news today. But for that, I had some really startling announcements to make.


MR. HOLDER: I would like to make one statement, though. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court invalidated a part of the Brady Bill that required States to conduct mandatory criminal background checks prior to handgun purchases. But in an era where criminals are more mobile than ever, background checks, it seems to us, are simply irreplaceable in the fight to keep guns out of the wrong hands. That is why the overwhelming majority of States decided to keep conducting these checks.

However, the State of Ohio did not initially continue to do background checks on purchasers who refused to submit to them. And in Ohio, approximately 10 percent of the purchasers refused.

Yesterday, after thoughtful discussions, the problem has been resolved. Under an agreement signed by the Justice Department, Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery, and the U.S. Treasury Department, these checks will resume.

Every handgun purchaser in Ohio will again be required to undergo a background check before they are given a gun. If they refuse to consent to a State check, the Franklin County Sheriff's Office in Columbus, Ohio, will check their backgrounds against National Criminal History databases. Because of this new agreement, approximately 98 percent of Americans now live in a jurisdiction where law enforcement officials voluntarily continue to perform background checks on prospective handgun purchasers.

This administration has gone the extra mile to keep guns out of the wrong hands. Since President Clinton signed the Brady Bill, background checks have stopped gun sales to more than a quarter-million felons, fugitives and others who should not have them. This agreement, we believe, will protect Ohioans and Americans everywhere.

QUESTION: Do you have any negotiations with the State of Arkansas to try to bring them into the compliance that other States are?

MR. HOLDER: Arkansas, I think at this point, is the only State that is not in the same posture as the other States. And our conversations with them, our negotiations with them, are continuing.

QUESTION: So how does it work, then? If you consent to the background check, then the local county does the background investigation? But if you do not, the gun dealer has to send it somewhere else?

MR. HOLDER: Well, with regard to the exact details, I will refer you to Kent Marcus, who is here. He can go through all of the details. But I think the significant thing is that Ohio is now with the other States, save for Arkansas, and in compliance with the Brady Bill.

QUESTION: On another subject.

MR. HOLDER: Let me take one other question.

QUESTION: Absolutely.

QUESTION: So what practical effect, then, is there of the Brady decision? Is it in any way different since the Supreme Court decision in 98 percent of these areas?

MR. HOLDER: No. As a result of the agreements that have been reached in all States now except Arkansas, it seems to me that the States are now as they were before the Supreme Court decision. The Supreme Court decision required that we could not require States to comply. But as a result of the agreements that have now been reached, all the States, again, save Arkansas, are in a pre-Supreme Court decision state.

QUESTION: And were there any other States that required some negotiation to get them to come around, or is Ohio the only one?

MR. HOLDER: I am not sure about that. We would have to check with Ken.

QUESTION: Is it clear, what is Arkansas's problem?

MR. HOLDER: Well, I am not sure there is necessarily a problem as much as the conversations are ongoing, the negotiations are ongoing. I would hope that in a relatively short period of time we will conclude an agreement similar to the one in Ohio, so that Arkansas is also in the list of States, and essentially complies with the Brady law.

QUESTION: But do you still have a State law in Arkansas that would prevent them from requiring the background checks?

MR. HOLDER: I am not totally familiar with all the reasons why we do not have an agreement with Arkansas. But, as I said, the negotiations continue.

QUESTION: Are they refusing to do any background checks or just background checks on those buyers that refuse, in Arkansas, do you know?

MR. HOLDER: Again, I am not sure.

QUESTION: Mr. Holder, did the agreement with Ohio involve any kind of reimbursement for whatever cost to perform these background checks?

MR. HOLDER: I am not sure about that. Ken, as I said, can give you all of the details. The important thing, as I said, again, is that these checks will be done, and people who do not have, or should not have, the right to have a gun will be prevented in Ohio, as in the other States, from getting them.

QUESTION: The memo, the Freeh memo. What is your understanding of how this memo is going to be read to, transmitted to, communicated to, the Burton committee?

MR. HOLDER: It will be orally summarized. That is, relevant portions of the memo will be orally summarized for committee members.

QUESTION: So will it be read? Will any parts of it be read verbatim?

MR. HOLDER: It is possible it could be. I mean, those portions that are relevant could be read. It is not an agreement or promise that it would be. But it might be a more efficient way to simply read a portion of the memo as opposed to trying to summarize it. We are doing this in a confidential manner so that we are sharing the information with those members of the committee. Our hope is that that information would obviously stop there and that it would not be shared beyond that.

QUESTION: If the purpose of -- the reason the Director and the Attorney General did not want this disclosed is they said they wanted to preserve confidentiality and let people think that they were giving their advice to the Attorney General, why wouldn't the Justice Department be within its rights to say to Congress, This is none of your business; we have no intention of telling you what our internal recommendations are?

MR. HOLDER: Well, we try to reach an accommodation with Congress and to share with Congress, given its legitimate oversight role, those portions of the memo that we think will not compromise the investigation, will not give those who are targets of the investigation a sense of where we are going, will not have a chilling effect on people who share their recommendations with the Attorney General. And given those strictures, I think we can have a meaningful dialogue with members of the committee.

QUESTION: Mr. Holder, one of the tasks you have taken on is to go over all the materials with respect to the FBI's Campaign Finance Task Force paperwork and evidence, to make sure that they have not missed anything. Can you tell us where you are in that process?

MR. HOLDER: The process is ongoing. Eric Dubalier, who is an Assistant United States Attorney from the District of Columbia and a person who I have worked with and have great faith in, is actually heading up that effort. He is putting together some teams that will be going out into the field to look at the records that are contained in the field at FBI offices, to make sure that we have acquired all of that information and have shared it with the appropriate people. But Eric is heading up that effort.

QUESTION: Mr. Holder, on Microsoft, do you folks think that the company is playing games to evade the temporary court order? And also, are you collaborating in any fashion with the States that are going after the company?

MR. HOLDER: Well, I would not necessarily characterize it as playing games. We are very dissatisfied, though, with the action that Microsoft has taken in connection with the court's previous order. And that is why we filed another motion yesterday to hold Microsoft in contempt.

The operating systems that they have made available, it seems to us, essentially flout the order of the judge from before. And that is why we are seeking, again, contempt sanctions.

QUESTION: What about the collaboration with the States?

MR. HOLDER: I'm sorry?

QUESTION: What about the matter of -- are you collaborating with the States that are investigating their options with regard to Microsoft?

MR. HOLDER: You have to check with Bert on that. I am not aware of any cooperation that is going on. But I am not sure about that.

QUESTION: (Off microphone) -- you are going to be going into FBI field offices to see if there are -- (off microphone)? I have never heard of that kind of -- (off microphone) -- before.

MR. HOLDER: Eric is not going in to check to see if systems are working. He is going to see if information is out there. And he has put together teams that involve agents and prosecutors who will be going to various offices to look and just to make sure that all the information that should have been gathered has been gathered and is now being shared with the Task Force.

I am not sure this is -- it may be unprecedented, I do not know, but this is something that has been worked out in conjunction with the FBI.

QUESTION: (Off microphone) -- essentially working with the Task Force now -- (off microphone) --

MR. HOLDER: His effort is an independent one. He is not working with the Task Force, though the results of his efforts would be shared with the Task Force -- information that he obtains.

QUESTION: And have you found anything so far? I mean, you have been working on this for a few weeks. Are all the documents, so far, in place? Or are there things missing? Are there things that worry you?

MR. HOLDER: Well, they have not actually gone into the field yet. I do not think they will actually get into the field until the early part of January. Eric is really kind of taking his time to get a sense of what the scope of the task was, to identify people who would be part of these teams. And I expect, as I said, that they would get into the field in early January.

QUESTION: Can you give us some details of how many teams he has created and what field offices he would be going to?

MR. HOLDER: I do not know the number of teams. I have a rough idea as to the number of offices. I would not want to -- let me just check on that, and we can provide you with some good numbers.

QUESTION: Teams consist of what, prosecutors and FBI agents?

MR. HOLDER: And agents, yes.

QUESTION: What about documents here at headquarters, FBI headquarters, are you looking into that?

MR. HOLDER: Yes, I guess we would. But I think our main concern is with documents that are held in the field.

QUESTION: Getting back to Microsoft, how would you -- what do you think they should have done to comply with the order? How would you characterize what in fact they have done? And do you think the fine should already be in place because of what they have done?

MR. HOLDER: Well, I mean, we obviously think that fines should be imposed. That is what we have sought from the court. It is our belief that the actions of Microsoft are inconsistent with what the judge ordered previously. The operating systems that they have made available are, to our minds, not satisfactory, and they should make available -- should really give true choices to computer manufacturers, systems that would have the browser, that would not have the browser, and that would truly function, truly operate.

QUESTION: What is the official status in the Oklahoma City bombing investigation? Is it essentially closed or are you continuing to look for other suspects?

MR. HOLDER: I really would not want to comment on that, given the fact that the trial is still proceeding.

QUESTION: Can you say whether or not the investigation is essentially closed or not?

MR. HOLDER: I would not want to comment on that, as I said, given the fact that the trial is still proceeding.

QUESTION: (Off microphone) -- Microsoft?

MR. HOLDER: Well, we have filed via that latest motion. We are prepared to litigate that motion in court and to try to substantiate our claims in front of a judge.

QUESTION: Mr. Holder, with regard to the inquiry into the CIA's supposedly bringing crack cocaine to the Southern California area, that report was supposed to be made public today. And there was also a report by Mr. Abramovich which was coming out, we understood. And it is our understanding that you and the Attorney General requested, or directed, that the Abramovich report not be released, and then requested that the CIA follow suit, and they have. Can you tell us why?

MR. HOLDER: Yes, that is accurate. The decision to not make the Justice Department report available -- that is, the Inspector General report available -- was my decision. The Attorney General agreed with that decision. And the request to the CIA was made by me.

There are ongoing law enforcement concerns that we have with regard to the release of the report. There are things that we do not want to have compromised. They are not related to the underlying allegations, but there are law enforcement concerns that we presently have that would, I think, make it prudent for us not to release the report at this time.

QUESTION: Can you be any more specific as to the law enforcement concerns?

MR. HOLDER: No, I really cannot. We are trying to work our way through these concerns, so that we can release the report as quickly as we can. We have briefed appropriate members of the Hill, to make them aware of the decision. And, as I said, we are going to try to get the reports out as soon as we can.

QUESTION: (Off microphone) -- reaction from the Hill, particularly Representative Waters?

MR. HOLDER: Her reaction, I think, yesterday, was a pretty good one. Mike Abramovich and I went up to talk to her, and tried to explain to her and share with her, to the extent that we could, the reasons why the report was not going to be released. And you would have to check with her, but I would not say that her reaction was hostile in any way.

QUESTION: Did you tell her about the essential findings in the report or the conclusions that were reached?

MR. HOLDER: No, we did not.

QUESTION: So all you told her was that the report was not going to be released?

MR. HOLDER: That is correct. We have shared with members of the intelligence committees the full extent of the -- the full report.

QUESTION: Well, there is a report in the Los Angeles Times this morning that sort of lays out what the CIA came up with. Is that essentially accurate?

MR. HOLDER: No, I have not seen the CIA report. I actually have not seen the L.A. Times -- I have not seen the L.A. Times report either.

QUESTION: You mean you have not seen the L.A. Times or you have not seen the CIA's report?

MR. HOLDER: Neither. I have not seen the L.A. Times report; I have not seen the CIA report.

QUESTION: Well, a couple of questions. First of all, when you say a law enforcement matter, are you talking about all the report says the CIA did not sell cocaine, you are talking -- presumably this is about people who did -- the law enforcement matter?

MR. HOLDER: No, I really would not want to go into any detail as to what the law enforcement matter is, other than to say it is not related to the underlying report.

QUESTION: Okay. Secondly, given the public concern and the outrage in especially Southern California about the initial story in the San Jose paper, can you at least say that the Inspector General concludes that the CIA did not try to introduce crack into California?

MR. HOLDER: I would not want to characterize the report in any way. It is a 400-page report. It is, as Mike Abramovich usually does, I think, a very good job, and one that we are eager to share as soon as we possibly can.

QUESTION: When may that be?

MR. HOLDER: Hard to say. There are some real issues that we have to work through. We have put in place a process to try to work through those issues. And our hope is, as I said, to get it out as soon as we can.

QUESTION: Are these grand jury matters?

MR. HOLDER: I really cannot comment on that.

QUESTION: Mr. Holder, one of the President's primary duties is to ensure national security. In fact, he is the highest authority on national security. When we were briefed by Director Freeh on Tuesday, he said there is a system whereby if national security matters are uncovered in the Campaign Finance Task Force and it is felt that they may adversely affect the ongoing criminal investigation, he and the Attorney General decide whether this is passed on to the President or to the White House.

Has the President agreed to this arrangement? Was this worked out with the White House previously?

MR. HOLDER: Yes, I mean this is part of a process that has been worked out between the FBI, the Justice Department and the National Security Council. The Attorney General has the ultimate decision as to what information would be passed along. And that is done on a case-by-case basis.

We have to try to reconcile the need to get to the President all relevant information about national security, because, as you say, he is responsible for that. There are, at times, tensions that are created with our ongoing criminal investigation. The Attorney General is the only that ultimately makes the decision. And that procedure, as I said, has been worked out with the NSC.

QUESTION: Well, has the President delegated that responsibility to the Attorney General? Because he really has the top authority over national security matters. Is this something worked out with the President, to give this authority to the Attorney General?

MR. HOLDER: As I said, it has been something worked out with the National Security Council, with the President's approval. This is something that Senator Specter and I talked about at great length during my confirmation hearing. And, as I said, the process that has been put in place is one that I think everyone is comfortable with.

QUESTION: Can you tell us what the criteria are? What national security matter would it be -- would you feel reluctant to convey to the President?

MR. HOLDER: Well, I would not want to go into specifics. I think the instances of information that we would not share with the President would be extremely rare, extremely rare.

QUESTION: In other words, are national security concerns primary in your criteria or are the law enforcement concerns primary in your criteria in deciding what goes on to the NSC and the President?

MR. HOLDER: I mean each case has to be decided on its facts. Obviously, national security matters are, I think, of primary concern.

QUESTION: There was a report in the New York Times a few days ago which said that the U.S. Attorney's Office in New York had referred some information to Public Integrity about possible illegal Venezuelan money that went into the Democratic Party, through the Castro family, and that the Justice Department just kind of sat on it, did not do anything. Can you comment on that?

MR. HOLDER: I am not familiar with that. But let me just say this about the Public Integrity Section in general and about Lee Radick in particular. There have been a lot of news reports about the Section and about how they have not performed, and about Lee Radick and about his performance in connection with the Campaign Finance Task Force.

I think those reports are simply erroneous and do not go to that Section, which I was a member of for 12 years, and certainly do not deal in an accurate way with Lee Radick's ability. He is a very tough, aggressive prosecutor. He is a person who has been charged with the responsibility of leading one of the more important parts of the Department, and has done so, I think, in a good manner for a substantial number of years.

I am not sure exactly why people have taken out against him, against the Section, as well. But I think that the people in that Section, and Lee Radick, do a really good job and have done a good job and have the confidence of the Attorney General and me.

QUESTION: Is there a disagreement, though, between Mr. Radick and Mr. Rabella, as has been repeatedly reported over the direction of the campaign finance investigation and whether it is aggressive enough and whether it is looking at the issues broadly?

MR. HOLDER: I think they actually worked pretty well together. I mean we have meetings concerning independent counsel matters that the Public Integrity Section is primarily responsible for handling that Chuck Rabella attends. We have meetings about the Campaign Finance Task Force that Chuck Rabella has primarily responsibility for and Lee comes to those meetings. And I think that there is a good relationship between the two investigatory bodies and between the two men, as well.

QUESTION: Can you just explain how those two groups relate in the campaign finance investigation? I saw Rabella quoted the other day as saying, you know, Radick is not a member of the Task Force. So how does Public Integrity actually work with the Campaign Finance Task Force in this investigation? Who does what? Who is in charge?

MR. HOLDER: Public Integrity has primary responsibility over independent counsel matters. The Campaign Finance Task Force has primary responsibility over campaign finance matters. Chuck heads up the Task Force. Lee heads up the Public Integrity Section. But there is a lot of overlap. And that is why it is necessary that they attend meetings of the other and that there is a constant flow of communication. And I think that that flow of communication is actually a good one.

QUESTION: So Public Integrity would not get involved in decisions not -- (off microphone) -- I mean people who are not covered by the independent counsel law, for example?

MR. HOLDER: I am not -- I would not go that far. I would say that, as an institution, Public Integrity would not. On the other hand, people in the Public Integrity Section, in the meetings that we would have in the Attorney General's Office, would certainly be asked their opinions and would share those opinions.

QUESTION: But the Republicans -- or some of them, at least on the Hill -- when the Attorney General testified last week, were grabbing on repeatedly to the quote by Mr. Radick that he does not support the independent counsel statute, that he does not agree with the statute. Is that a problem? Is that leading to some of the reported difficulties?

MR. HOLDER: Lee Radick has administered the Ethics in Government Act for a number of years, both as a line attorney, a Deputy Chief in the Public Integrity Section, now as the Chief of that Section. And I would dare anyone to find a specific instance where he has not followed the law as he was supposed to have done.

QUESTION: I was wondering if you can give us a recent update on the investigation of the tobacco companies. Is there any new developments on that front that you can share with us?

MR. HOLDER: Just that the matter is ongoing. I have not been briefed recently on it. I was involved in it as the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, but I have not had a recent briefing on that.

QUESTION: On campaign finance, can you give us any kind of prediction on when the first round of criminal charges will be brought?

MR. HOLDER: I cannot do that.


QUESTION: Also, are you familiar with the status of the Artukovic report that -- (off microphone) -- office did on the OSI investigation? He was a Balkan politician there in the war.

MR. HOLDER: I am not familiar with the status of that.

QUESTION: Back for a moment to the differences of opinion about the approach to the campaign finance investigation. How alive and well is the exploration of a conspiracy theory; that is, a theory that what really took place here in 1996 was a conspiracy to violate campaign laws?

MR. HOLDER: Well, I do not want to comment on the dimensions of the investigation other than to say that the investigation is ongoing. It is very active. And the people who have views as to what ought to be looked at are listened to. All views are welcomed in the discussions that we have on a weekly basis in the Attorney General's Office.

QUESTION: The Attorney General seemed to describe that theory, as it was laid out by Director Freeh anyway, as sort of an abstract theory. Do you see it that way?

MR. HOLDER: I do not know if I would characterize it as abstract or not. It sounds kind of arty to me. I am more a prosecutor than an art person.


QUESTION: Mr. Holder, the President pointedly refused an invitation to endorse the FBI Director this week, and the FBI Director made it clear he is nobody's loyal subordinate when it comes to the law. There is no love lost between the White House and the FBI. What kind of problems does that create for you?

MR. HOLDER: Well, I would not want to characterize the relationship between the FBI and the White House. I mean, it seems to me that the President was right in his press conference in saying, I think, a little too much has been made of that issue. I mean, Louis Freeh has done a superb job, I think, as the Director of the FBI. He has the faith of the Attorney General and those of us in law enforcement. And we work with him and work with him quite well.

QUESTION: But, Mr. Holder, in saying too much has been made of it, this is the same President who characterized him as a law enforcement legend -- his direct words. Now, for somebody who is a law enforcement legend, and then he will not express confidence in him, it does some to be something of a contrast. Something has happened in that period.

MR. HOLDER: Well, again, I am not sure about that. And I would not want to characterize the words that anybody has used or not used, other than to say that I think Louis Freeh has been a superb FBI Director.

QUESTION: Senator Hatch talked about having a hearing, when subordinates of even your office might be called up to talk about independent counsel -- (off microphone). Would you agree to let particular people who, you know, are really sort of rooted level, career lawyers here go up and talk about these things with Hatch?

MR. HOLDER: Well, we are always eager to work with members of Congress with regard to their legitimate oversight requests. I was a line attorney for 12 years, as I said earlier, in the Public Integrity Section. And I think that people should keep in mind the potential chilling effect of bringing line attorneys, for instance, before Congress to talk about the decisions that they have made, things they have written in prosecution memoranda. And to that extent, I have concerns.

Obviously, people like myself, politically appointed, Senate confirmed, are more than willing to go up to the Hill and talk about things that are in the minds of Senators or Representatives. When you go too far below people like myself, though, in terms of how we rank in the Justice Department, I have concerns about the chilling effect that that would have on the conduct of the work of the Department.

QUESTION: We are already seeing that, though, aren't we? We are seeing some other people down the line -- names being thrown around -- Mr. Lipp's name is being thrown around. One of the conservative columnists even threw Mr. Markham's name around. I mean, what is going on there? Do you think the Department is under attack?

MR. HOLDER: I do not think the Department is under attack. There are questions that have been raised. I mean there are obvious differences of opinion between some members of the Hill and the Justice Department as to the way in which the campaign finance investigation has been conducted. To the extent that we can respond to inquiries, we are more than willing to do that.

I would really caution people, however, to try to ensure that the oversight is done in such a way that it does not have a negative effect on the work of the Justice Department.

QUESTION: Is that going to happen, though?

MR. HOLDER: No, I do not think it has happened as yet. I do not think there has been any chilling effect. I am concerned, really, about the potential for such an effect.

QUESTION: Do you think there could be any negative impact along that line from the memo and -- I mean, even provided orally, summaries of portions of the memo? And aren't you concerned that even doing just that much is setting a precedent?

MR. HOLDER: I do not see any precedent being set by the action we are taking with Chairman Burton in summarizing the memo. This is a memorandum from the Director of the FBI. And from my perspective, that is different than, say, a memorandum that might have been prepared by a line attorney in the Public Integrity Section, in the Fraud Section or the Criminal Division. So I do not see the precedential value of that being very great at all.

QUESTION: How do you and Attorney General Reno feel about this agreement to brief the Burton committee? I mean was this something that Director Freeh insisted on? And is this something you are pleased with?

MR. HOLDER: It was something we all worked on, the FBI, the Justice Department and people up on the Hill. And I think all parties are satisfied with the arrangement that has been worked out.

QUESTION: Given the furor over the Bill Lann Lee nomination, the questions about the memo, how would you describe the Justice Department relationship with the Hill right now?

MR. HOLDER: It is strained in places, I suppose; good in other places. But I am not at all certain that that is different from the way it is at any given point in time. At any given point in time, one committee chair, one committee might not be happy with some action that the Department has taken. We try to work our way through those things and try to, as I said before, comply with legitimate oversight requests and, at the same time, protect those things that are our responsibility.

QUESTION: But given the concerns I think the Attorney General has expressed over the nominations for the bench and potential concern about Mr. Lee's being placed in the acting position, could that have an effect on coming appointments to the Department?

MR. HOLDER: I mean it certainly could have an effect, depending on how people on the Hill want to respond to Mr. Lee's appointment. But I would hope that, certainly with regard to judges, for instances, that people would keep in mind that the American people are the ones who are ultimately affected by a slowdown in the confirmation process. Litigants who want to have their cases heard would have to wait longer periods of time. We still have districts in the country where emergencies have been declared, where there are not sufficient numbers of judges.

So I would hope that we can get beyond concern about the Lee appointment and get back to the business that we should all be about. And certainly with regard to judges, that is very important.

VOICE: Any more questions?

(No response.)

VOICE: Thank you very much.

MR. HOLDER: Okay, thank you.

VOICES: Thank you.

(Whereupon, at 9:59 a.m., the press conference concluded.)