Attorney General Eric Holder dismissed a new government watchdog report which declared some NSA programs illegal, insisting that the spy agency’s vast secret surveillance is on strong legal footing.
In an exclusive, wide-ranging interview on Thursday with msnbc, Holder also spoke about new voting rights legislation, Republican Voter ID laws, Wall Street prosecutions and the Obama administration’s efforts to reform the War on Drugs with more rehabilitation programs. (See video below.)
On the NSA findings, Holder said he hadn’t read the new report from the government’s privacy and civil liberties board, but noted that “at least 15 judges on about 35 occasions have said that the program itself is legal.”
When asked about judges who disagree, including a Washington federal court that rebuked the bulk data collection last month, Holder, himself a former Washington judge, contended the legal consensus is now clear.
“I think that those other judges, those 15 judges, got it right,” Holder said.
The Obama administration’s recent “modifications” to the NSA program addressed any outstanding legal issues, Holder added, and he is now focused on working with James Clapper, the National Intelligence Director, on a harder policy question for surveillance today: “Simply because we can do it, should we?”
Holder discussed the case against former NSA contractor Edward Snowden earlier this week.
New voting rights law and voter ID
Holder also made his most extensive comments to date on a proposal to renew the Voting Rights Act.
He credited a bipartisan bill, introduced last week by Rep. John Lewis, a Democrat, and Republican Jim Sensenbrenner for going a “long way” towards addressing the Supreme Court’s ruling against the law last June. However, Holder said the bill should patrol voter ID laws more assertively.
“If we can show that that photo ID efforts are done inappropriately and for improper reasons,” Holder said, “that ought to be the basis for federal intervention.”
The bill only counts voter ID violations found by a court – not violations filed by the Justice Department – to trigger supervision of local voting rules. That’s a less stringent approach than the original Voting Rights Act of 1965, and it relies less on the Attorney General’s judgment than the original law.
Holder had strong words for Republicans who use voter ID laws to suppress or distort voter turnout.
“People have to understand that we are not opposed to photo identification in a vacuum,” he said, but it must not be used “to disenfranchise” people for racial or “partisan reasons.” While some GOP lawmakers may have a “good faith” concern here, Holder said, others are disingenuously “using it for partisan advantage.”
“The reality is that all the studies show that this whole question of ballot integrity, in-person voter fraud – simply does not exist,” he stressed. Given all the data, Holder contended, Republicans’ fixation on voter ID suggests “a remedy in search of a problem.” ”It is being used, in too many instances,” he continued, “to depress the vote of particular groups of people who are not supportive of the party that is advancing these photo ID measures.”
The attorney general said he’d like to talk with Congress about legislative “language” to ensure the bill prevents any misuse of ID requirements. “I would like to work with members of Congress,” he pledged, “to make this bill as strong as we possibly can make it.”
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