WEEKLY MEDIA BRIEFING WITH DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER.
THE DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, WASHINGTON, DC
9:31 A.M. EDT THURSDAY, APRIL 22, 1999
MR. HOLDER: Good morning. Attorney General Reno is in Colorado today to meet with law enforcement and victim service providers, as well as to meet with community members. She wants to offer them our support and let them know that we are ready to provide whatever assistance we can and whatever assistance they might request.
This week's shooting deeply shocked and saddened all Americans. All of us are asking how this could have happened. We're asking what we can do to make sure that it never happens again, but I'm not sure that anyone really has all of the answers.
I do know that we are moving in the right direction, despite this tragic event. Although it comes as little comfort, we must remember that schools are still among the safest places for our children. But one shooting like this is one too many.
Since last year's shootings, we've stepped up our efforts to help school violence -- to stop school violence before it happens. We've convened meetings with experts on youth violence, and uniformly these experts told us that there is much that we know about how to prevent similar incidents from arising, and there's much that we can do. They told us that while we must punish and hold youthful offenders accountable, we must do everything that we can to prevent similar tragedies from happening as well. We must balance punishment, prevention, and intervention is the key.
In August of 1998 the Departments of Justice and Education issued guidelines to help school principals and teachers recognize and respond to youth who have displayed warning signs of violent behavior. And this is a copy of that guide, the "Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools." We have distributed over 500,000 copies of this "Early Warning, Timely Response" report. Every school in the nation was sent a copy.
We also collaborated with the Department of Education on the first ever annual report on school safety, which was released last fall. That is this. This contains statistical information, how-to guides on how to prevent school violence, examples of good programs that worked, and then how to get access to resources.
In addition, the COPS office at the Department of Justice is pursuing promising problem-solving partnerships between schools and law enforcement. We know that when schools work together with local law enforcement to tackle local school safety issues, they enjoy remarkable success. We're also funding the hiring of hundreds of community police and school resource officers to work in our most troubled schools.
And together with the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, we've set up a new grant program called the Safe Schools, Healthy Students Initiative, designed to promote coordinated, comprehensive plans for school safety in communities around the country.
We just opened the application process for this initiative, which marks the first time that the three agencies have partnered to create a single, streamlined application and funding process. These are just some of the steps that show this administration's commitment to eliminating youth violence, but the tragic events in Littleton are a sad reminder that our work is clearly not yet done. We will keep looking for more ways to prevent these sorts of deadly acts from happening again.
Q Parents of one of the slain students is saying that it was well known that these students were threatening other kids. In fact, one was waving a pipe bomb, was the slain weight lifter -- (inaudible) -- saying we we complained to the school that this kid was threatening my son. In this case, it seems like the warning signs were all there and the adults weren't heeding them. What is your feeling about that?
MR. HOLDER: Well, I'm not familiar with, you know, all the facts that have been developed. I mean, this is still an ongoing process. But one of the things that I think that comes out of this "Early Warning, Timely Response" book is that I would hope that school administrators, parents, students would look at this, read it, and then be mindful of those people who show these kinds of signs. I mean, hindsight is always 20-20, and you don't want to be unfair. But I think this is a really good piece of work that I hope administrators and people who are involved in schools will look at and then will employ.
Q Mr. Holder, at one time the department was pushing legislation for trigger locks, childproof trigger locks. It basically died in Congress. Any thought within the department of trying to revive that legislation and trying to get it passed?
MR. HOLDER: I still think that that is a good idea. We will be introducing as part of an initiative in the next few weeks a variety of gun measures, and I think that is something we ought to -- that Congress should still seriously consider.
Q Trigger locks obviously would not have stopped these two kids, though.
MR. HOLDER: No, and you can't point to any one thing as preventing any one of these tragedies. I mean, we have to look at a comprehensive set of measures to try to stop these things, everything from conflict resolution to trigger locks, the early warning system. And we have to do all these things in an attempt to identify those kids who are most at risk and then stop them from doing the type of things we have seen too often in the last couple of years.
Q This school had a rule that any kid coming into school with a gun would be expelled. Obviously, that did not deter these students.
This school had an armed guard on the premises. Obviously, that did not prevent multiple killings and woundings. I think Stephanie's point is well taken -- that there were early warning signs that were ignored.
MR. HOLDER: Well, I'm not sure about that. I mean, we know we'll have to look at the situation as the investigation proceeds, and we'll learn from the situation in the way that we did from those other incidents. And as time goes on, hopefully we will refine, you know, these early warning signs and people will become more familiar with these early warning signs and hopefully will be able to be in a position to stop these kinds of things from happening.
Q Colorado happens to be one of the states that's debating the merits of allowing concealed weapons under some circumstances. Is the federal government either quietly lobbying or in any way working at the -- with states or at the state level somehow on this issue of concealed weapons?
MR. HOLDER: Well, I mean, I think that, you know, if you look at the statistics, you see that about 80 percent of all of the homicides involving young people involve the use of firearms, almost all handguns. The same thing is true of adults who are killed, who are murdered in this country. And I think we've got a real problem with guns, and we need to have reasonable measures, not to put more guns on the streets, but to come up with ways in which we have reasonable ways of making sure that only the appropriate people have access to guns. The answer, it seems to me, is not to put more guns on the street.
Q Now is that something that should be, I mean, dealt with legislatively at either the state or the federal level?
MR. HOLDER: Well, I mean, we have certainly in this administration taken a number of steps on the federal level to try to deal with the problem of gun violence. And I think that states should also look at the problems that they have in their particular jurisdictions and pass legislation that's consistent with what this administration has tried to espouse.
Q The Clinton administration has a very ambitious set of gun control measures either already introduced or that you will be introducing, and the NRA has vowed to fight every single one of them. Do you think this will give you the opening you need to push some of these through, or do you think that the environment still is not there for you to succeed, you know, at the congressional level?
MR. HOLDER: Well, you know, I think the environment is there. I think all the public polls always show that the American people -- the vast majority of the American people support reasonable restrictions placed on the possession of guns. There is obviously a strong gun lobby. I would hope that maybe something -- one of the positive things that would come out of this very tragic event in Littleton would be the passage of the legislation that we will be proposing -- again, that I think is extremely reasonable and that is supported by the majority of the American people.
Q What do you want to push more than anything? Which legislation would you like to see passed?
MR. HOLDER: Well, I mean, there are a variety of things. I mean, looking, you know, at the situation here, I mean, one of the things I think we want to do is to ensure that young people who have been convicted of serious crimes don't have access to guns, in the way that we now, under the Brady Law, prevent adults who -- (inaudible) -- serious crimes with ever possessing guns. You know, there are great risks that I think we can all -- that are quite evident in allowing people who have committed violent crimes with possessing guns. And I think if a person, however old, commits a violent crime, that person should not be allowed to possess a gun.
Q There's also on the Internet, anybody with an Internet connection can get instructions for how to construct a pipe bomb, the materials needed. What do you do about that aspect of this case, the availability of those kind of things on the Internet?
MR. HOLDER: That's a very difficult problem. There are obviously free speech concerns in trying to regulate anything that happens on the Internet, and yet it seems to me there must be ways in which we restrict people from, in essence, letting people know how you can develop these kinds of things, these kinds of bombs. It's always a question of how you strike a balance between public safety and free speech. And I would hope that we'd be in a position to develop some kind of legislation or some kinds of reasonable restrictions so that we can come up with ways in which we do that.
I would add, in addition -- and I'm glad you mentioned it -- that both of the documents that I held up earlier are on the Department of Justice and Department of Education websites. So in addition to all the hundreds of thousands of copies that are out there, people can just dial in to our websites and get access to those documents.
Q Just to follow up on that question, do you actually have a serious hope that you can pass in this Republican-led Congress any of your legislation with any sense of reality?
MR. HOLDER: Yeah, I think so. You know, we have passed with Republican majorities in Congress, I think, some very serious, very effective gun legislation in the past few years. I don't have any reason to believe that people -- it seems to me these are nonpartisan issues; these are public safety issues. And if these proposals will be viewed in that way -- and I think that they will be, at least by a substantial number of people up on the Hill -- that there's a good chance that we can get this stuff passed.
Q Mr. Holder, getting back to trigger locks, let's say that the best happens, and a year from now, every weapon in this country must be sold with a trigger lock. Is there any doubt in your mind that hundreds of children and thousands of adults will go on to lead their lives, will not be killed, simply because of that one simple precaution?
MR. HOLDER: Well, again, I don't -- I think -- yeah, if you have trigger locks, you will save lives. One of the things we know about adolescents is that many suicides that happen when kids use guns are impulse kinds of things, and if there is something that even delays the ability of a young person to get access to a gun and then to use it on himself or herself, that'll save some lives. The number of accidents that occur in homes where there not trigger locks would be prevented. I don't know if I could say hundreds of thousands of lives would be saved --
Q (Off mike) -- thousands, but hundreds -- literally hundreds of kids would survive who will not survive -- (off mike).
MR. HOLDER: Yeah, I don't have any doubt that there would be a substantial number of people alive at the end of next year, who might not otherwise be alive, if we had that trigger lock legislation, which, again, as I said, is consistent with what this administration is now -- it seems to me that is just -- that is a reasonable thing for -- just to be put into law.
Q What kind of help are the law enforcement people out there asking for from the department? And if there are accomplices found, is there any belief that the federal government would become involved in a prosecution?
MR. HOLDER: Well, this is a primarily a state and local matter, and we're there to support them in any way that we can. You know, this is an ongoing investigation. It's hard to tell at this point whether other people were involved. If it's appropriate for the federal government to become involved and to bring charges, we certainly would consider that. I wouldn't say that at this point I have any indications that that is the case, but we're to help in any way that we can.
Q On the first part of her question, have you had any requests at all for federal assistance?
MR. HOLDER: We are -- have responded to at least a couple of requests, and we are meeting those requests.
Q What are they?
Q What are they? What have you done, and what requests have you responded to so far?
MR. HOLDER: Well, we have certainly tried to make available help with regard to the question of victim/witness assistance, and then some investigative things as well. But I really would not want to go into it right now.
Q I'm just curious with regard to legislation. Is now the right time to pursue that -- while the tragedy is still fresh? Or would you wait? When would you begin to pursue serious talks with Hastert or someone on the Hill?
MR. HOLDER: With regard to the --
Q With regard to gun legislation.
MR. HOLDER: Well, there was a schedule that had been in place. That schedule I don't think is going to be altered by the events -- the tragic events in Littleton. And I would expect that we would see things introduced in the next few weeks. But that, as I said, is a schedule that had been put in place well before this event.
Q If I can change the subject for a minute, refugees from Kosovo are now going to be brought to the mainland United States and given some more protected status that had originally been considered. Can you explain what is going to happen now and why the change?
MR. HOLDER: Well, there is, we think, a need to relieve the situation that is -- that exists in Macedonia. Refugees will be brought to the -- people will be brought to the United States under the refugee provisions. Those people who have family here will be -- we'll attempt to reunite them, and those people who can be defined as refugees will also be brought to the United States, the continental United States. That is the plan.
Q So you don't necessarily have to have family here, but there has to be some reason that you could be declared a refugee.
MR. HOLDER: Right. There's a legal definition that we can get to you, that defines a person who can be considered a refugee and the conditions that have to be met. And it is on that basis that we would be bringing people to the United States.
Q And --
Q (Off mike) -- I'm sorry. Go ahead.
Q I was -- go ahead, if you're asking about refugees.
Q I was just going to ask, will the numbers increase, or is it the same original number that was cited -- number of refugees --
MR. HOLDER: I still think we're looking at around 20,000.
Q NATO bombed one of the residences of Milosevic last night. How is it that that does not violate the executive order against assassination?
MR. HOLDER: Well, the -- as I understand what we have done -- and it's consistent with the guides the Justice Department gave at the beginning of this whole matter -- bombs are dropped on command and control facilities. There has not been any attempt on the part of the United States to target particular individuals and --
Q His home?
MR. HOLDER: Well, there are things -- other -- well, let me just say that there -- the bombing is consistent with the guidance that was given to the Department of Defense by the Justice Department.
Q Also, while we're on Kosovo, the United States and France have been looking for a legal way to have a naval blockade to prevent fuel supplies from entering Yugoslavia, but they can't figure out how to do it legally without a declaration of war in both countries.
Has the White House asked the Justice Department to research the issue, to see whether there's some legal umbrella that they can use for a blockade?
MR. HOLDER: I wouldn't want to comment on that right now.
Q How -- if I could talk about the Webb Hubbell case for a second, what -- how receptive would the Justice Department be to taking over parts of Ken Starr's investigation if he decides to turn it over when the law expires?
MR. HOLDER: Well, I guess what we'd want to do is to sit down with Mr. Starr, if that was something that he wanted to do, and to see exactly how that might be accomplished, and whether or not it would be appropriate. You would have to look at the individual cases, if that were something that Judge Starr wanted to do. And as I said, I would hope that before anything like that happened, we'd have an opportunity to sit down with him and discuss that.
Q Would you still have a conflict? Would the department still have a conflict with respect to Mr. Hubbell?
MR. HOLDER: Yeah, I suspect that we probably would. And I think that if -- we'd have to sit down with, as I said, Judge Starr, and figure out exactly how all of the matters that might be referred -- and I don't have any indication that that is, you know, his desire. We're just speaking hypothetically --
MR. HOLDER: -- and doing, I guess, what the attorney general always does not do, which is a "what if" here.
Q (Laughs.) Well, and if I can string this --
MR. HOLDER: "What if" -- (off mike) --
Q -- "what if" out a little bit farther, you would certainly still have a conflict with respect to anything that might be ongoing regarding the president, wouldn't you? Wouldn't the department still have a conflict with respect to the president or the first lady?
MR. HOLDER: I suspect that's right. And you know, the measures that -- or the measures that we have sent up to Congress for their consideration to replace the independent counsel statute all would contemplate us looking at particular matters that were referred to us, however we got them, and deciding whether or not the Justice Department can proceed with them or whether or not the attorney general would need to appoint a special prosecutor to look at these matters. And given what we might get from any independent counsel, those are the kinds of questions we'd have to ask ourselves.
Q Speaking of the attorney general appointing special prosecutors, the letter you sent up to Congressman Gekas a week or two ago seems -- you seem now to be contemplating regulations that would bend way over in the direction of control, as opposed to independence. For example, now a special counsel would have to clear indictments with the attorney general. I mean, that's hardly independent. The special counsel would have to file annual reports on the status of his investigation, would have to submit budget requests.
It sort of surprised me that you would go so far away from independence.
MR. HOLDER: Well, I mean, the proposal didn't say that all indictments need to be cleared by the attorney general; it was just that there might be some that an independent counsel or special prosecutor, whatever the person would be called, would want to clear with the attorney general. If, for instance, there were a matter that involved national security, it might be something that an independent counsel might want to check with the Justice Department or other parts of the government to see what the effects of that might be.
I mean, we tried to strike a balance in that proposal between accountability and independence, and those are really good things that are in tension. And we think that what we set up was a pretty measured response. It is something that we want to work with Congress on, and I'm sure people will look at the proposal that we have set up and will have suggestions. And we want to work with people from Congress to come up with something to be put in place after the statute expires.
Q Did I miss something? Has there been a feeler from Starr's office to turn over parts of his investigation, or is this a --
MR. HOLDER: I've seen that reported in some columns, I guess the same thing that Stephanie might have seen at some point.
Q Mr. Holder, any specific threats, credible threats in regard to the summit here, NATO summit here this week?
MR. HOLDER: I wouldn't comment on that. I will say that I think there have been -- we have put in place adequate security measures. The Secret Service, the FBI, all federal law enforcement agencies, working with the Special Operations Division of the Metropolitan Police Department, have taken adequate measures to make sure that this event goes off without incident.
Q (Off mike) -- the city is as secure as it can be?
MR. HOLDER: It's getting more secure by the minute, and will be, I think, as secure as it can be by sometime later tonight, early tomorrow.
Q But still -- (inaudible) -- a high-alert situation, though? I mean, last time I checked, the FBI said that there was no credible threat of any possible terrorist attack, but that everyone was in a state of high alert -- which everyone always is in a state of high alert. (Laughs.)
MR. HOLDER: I think that's accurate. You know, the fact that we (are/aren't ?) in a low alert situation doesn't mean that in any way our vigilance is low or that our guard is not up. We are prepared for just about anything, and want to ensure that these three days go off without incident. I'm confident we'll be able to do that.
Q Thank you.
MR. HOLDER: Thank you.
Q Will you be here tomorrow?
MR. HOLDER: No. I'll be in --
Q Are you working Friday?
MR. HOLDER: I am essential, but I'll be monitoring the situation from my home in upper Northwest. (Laughter.) Closely monitoring the situation.