During Barack Obama’s presidential run, Eric Holder, Bill Clinton’s Deputy Attorney General from 1997 to 2001, campaigned heavily for the then-Illinois senator. This past summer, Obama tapped Holder to serve on the vice presidential selection team that ultimately chose Joe Biden to be Obama’s running mate. Now Holder may receive his own position in the Obama administration, for which he has been nominated to serve as Attorney General.
Holder brings a resume rich with titles to the job. He also brings a history of aiding terrorists, foreign and domestic.
The Columbia law school graduate has been Judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; United States Attorney; and Judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, among other professional distinctions. But it is a personal attribute, not a professional title, which will determine the quality of his performance as America’s chief law-enforcement officer: his judgment. And there is ample reason to be apprehensive about Eric Holder’s judgment.
For instance, he has condemned the Guantanamo Bay detention center as an “international embarrassment,” even though detainees are treated more humanely than even the Geneva Conventions require. Despite evidence to the contrary, he has accused the U.S. government of having “authorized torture and … let fear take precedence over the rule of law.” Holder has also demanded an immediate end to warrantless eavesdropping by intelligence and counterterrorism officials.
But Holder’s biggest lapses in judgment date back to the final days of the Clinton administration. He was among those entrusted with the task of vetting the Clinton administration’s 176 last-minute pardons—whose beneficiaries included such luminaries as billionaire financier Marc Rich (who had fled the country rather than face federal tax evasion charges) and former Weather Underground members Susan Rosenberg and Linda Evans. Holder’s judgment is called into question most dramatically by his intimate involvement in President Clinton’s August 11, 1999, pardon of 16 members of the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), an FBI-designated terrorist organization that was active in the U.S. from the mid-1970s through the early 1980s. Before exploring the very significant role Holder played in securing clemency for the aforementioned 16, some background is in order.
The FALN was a Marxist-Leninist group whose mission was to secure Puerto Rico’s political independence from the United States. Toward that end, between 1974 and 1983 the group detonated nearly 130 bombs in such strategically selected places as military and government buildings, financial institutions, and corporate headquarters located mainly in Chicago, New York, and Washington DC. These bombings were intended as acts of protest against America’s political, military, financial, and corporate presence in Puerto Rico. In total, FALN bombs killed six people—including the Chilean ambassador to the United States—and wounded at least 80 others.
On April 4, 1980, eleven FALN members were arrested in Evanston, Illinois. More of their comrades would also be apprehended in Chicago in the early 1980s. All were charged with seditious conspiracy, but they refused to participate in their own trial proceedings—claiming defiantly that the U.S. government was an illegitimate entity and thus had no moral authority to judge them. All the defendants were found guilty and were sentenced to federal prison terms ranging from 35 to 105 years.
On November 9, 1993, a self-identified “human rights” organization named Ofensiva ’92 filed a petition for executive clemency on behalf of 18 members of the FALN and Los Macheteros (“The Machete-Wielders”), another violent organization seeking Puerto Rican independence. According to a December 12, 1999 report issued by the House Committee on Government Reform, the prisoners themselves “refused to take part in any process that would legitimize the government’s actions against them, therefore they refused to file their own petitions.”
This presented a problem. The Department of Justice (DOJ) traditionally stipulates that clemency will be considered only if a prisoner first files a petition on his or her own behalf, an act which the Department views as a sign of contrition. However, DOJ made an exception in this case and accepted Ofensiva ’92’s petition. This document cast the FALN prisoners as blameless freedom fighters analogous to those Americans who had fought in the Revolutionary War against Britain.
The campaign to free the FALN terrorists found prominent supporters. Among the notables who joined Ofensiva ’92’s clemency crusade were Cardinal John O'Connor, Coretta Scott King, Jimmy Carter, and the National Lawyers Guild. Perhaps the most passionate support came from Democrat Representatives Luis Gutierrez (IL), Jose Serrano (NY), and Nydia Velazquez (NY), each of whom echoed Ofensiva ’92’s claim that the FALN members were “political prisoners” who deserved to be released.
The attorneys and advocates who were fighting for the freedom of the FALN prisoners first met with the Justice Department’s Pardon Attorney on July 19, 1994. In October 1996, they met with Jack Quinn, Counsel to the President. They were unsuccessful, however, in their efforts to convey the legitimacy of their cause to the Office of the Pardon Attorney (OPA), which in 1996 contacted the Justice Department and recommended against clemency. That recommendation, in turn, was forwarded to the White House. But the matter was not over. OPA continued to meet with groups and individuals lobbying for clemency on behalf of the FALN terrorists.
Enter Eric Holder. In 1997, Holder became President Clinton’s Deputy Attorney General in the Justice Department headed by Janet Reno. In this role, Holder was responsible for overseeing clemency investigations and determining which of those requests were ultimately worthy of President Clinton’s attention. As evidenced by a September 1997 memorandum from the Pardon Attorney, the Justice Department was, at this point, receiving numerous inquiries about the FALN and Macheteros—from the White House and from supporters of the prisoners. The aforementioned House Committee on Government Reform report stated: “Throughout the closing months of 1997 it appears that Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder was active in the issue. The privilege log reflects at least two notes regarding his questions on the clemency or his thoughts on the matter.”
On November 5, 1997, Holder met with Representatives Gutierrez, Serrano, and Velazquez to discuss the clemency issue. He advised the legislators that they might greatly increase the likelihood of a presidential pardon if they could convince the prisoners to write letters testifying as to the personal remorse they felt for their past actions. But no such letters would be produced for five months, during which time the clemency issue remained on hold. Meanwhile, in a January 6, 1998 letter, a senior Justice Department official expressly referred to the FALN members as “terrorists.”
Then on April 8, 1998, Holder again met with FALN supporters. This time, they finally delivered statements from the prisoners as Holder had advised in November. Once again, however, there was a problem: all their statements were identical, indicating that not one of the prisoners had made the effort to craft his own personal expression of repentance. Undeterred, Holder asked whether the prisoners might at least agree to renounce future violence in exchange for clemency. One of the prisoners’ backers, Reverend Paul Sherry, made it clear that they surely “would not change their beliefs”—presumably about the issue of Puerto Rican independence—but was vague as to whether they would eschew violence altogether.
Over the next few weeks, Holder and the Justice Department continued to meet with clemency advocates. Holder was the point man for these negotiations. As Brian Blomquist wrote in the New York Post, “A list of FALN documents withheld from Congress shows that many memos on the FALN clemency decision went directly to Holder, while Reno’s role was minimal.” Similarly, New York Daily News reporter Edward Lewine wrote that Holder was “the Justice Department official most involved with this issue.”
It should be noted that throughout the clemency review process, neither Holder nor anyone else in the Justice Department contacted the FALN’s victims or their families. As a result, most were never aware that clemency for the terrorists was even being contemplated. Those few who were aware of the possibility were rebuffed in their efforts to participate in the review process.
On May 19, 1998, DOJ’s pardon attorney sent Eric Holder a 48-page draft memorandum “concerning clemency for Puerto Rican Nationalist prisoners.” Seven weeks later, on July 8, Holder sent President Clinton a “memorandum regarding clemency matter.” Behind the scenes, indeed, the Deputy Attorney General was methodically spearheading the march toward clemency—despite the fact that the sentencing judges, the U.S. Attorneys, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the Fraternal Order of Police, and the FBI were unanimous in their opposition to pardoning the FALN.
In late July 1999 an attorney from Holder’s office spoke to White House Counsel Charles Ruff regarding the clemency. On August 9, 1999, Holder’s office and OPA held one final meeting to hammer out the details, and two days later the President made his announcement: clemency had been granted to the 16 terrorists, most of whom had served only a fraction of their prison terms. Of the sixteen, twelve accepted the offer and were freed; two refused it; and two others, already out of prison, never responded.
Clinton, who previously had complied with just 3 of 3,229 requests for clemency, justified his decision by explaining that the prisoners already had served sufficient prison time for their crimes. He further cited executive privilege for his refusal to give Congress a number of documents related to his verdict. Congress, for its part, was not pleased—condemning the clemencies by votes of 95-2 in the Senate and 311-41 in the House.
In the aftermath of August 11, 1999, a report by the very same Justice Department that employed Eric Holder stated that the FALN posed an “ongoing threat” to national security. And in late October 1999 the Senate Judiciary Committee released a report from Attorney General Janet Reno stating that the FALN members’ “impending release from prison” would “increase the present threat” of terrorism. Dangerous terrorists had been set free, and Eric Holder had made it happen.
Holder’s response to the threat reports was unconvincing at best. In an October 20 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, and again with reporters the following day, Eric Holder denied that Reno was referring to the same FALN terrorists whose pardons he had worked so long and hard to secure. Yet, when Holder was asked to identify whom Reno was in fact talking about, his response amounted to little more than a pathetic stammer:
I don’t know, no, I don’t know that. We might be able to get you some more information on that, but, I mean, you know, there were certain people who are due to be released, or who were at least eligible for parole, had a release date in the next, as I said, three, four years. I don’t know exactly who they were. Maybe—we might be able to get you that information.
They never did. Neither Holder nor the Justice Department ever provided the names of any of these mystery men.
In the final analysis, Eric Holder was the individual most central to the Clinton White House’s dogged quest to pardon the FALN terrorists. His efforts toward that end can more accurately be characterized as partisan advocacy than as dispassionate dispensation of justice. As the December 1999 House Committee on Government Reform report put it:
Nearly ten years after the FALN pardons, Holder is once again set to enter the Attorney General’s office – this time as its head. But before assuming that important post, he owes the American people – and the victims of FALN terror – the explanation he failed to provide when the terrorists were set free.
The 16 terrorists appear to be most unlikely candidates. They did not personally request clemency. They did not admit to wrongdoing and they had not renounced violence before such a renunciation had been made a quid pro quo for their release. They expressed no contrition for their crimes, and were at times openly belligerent about their actions…. Notwithstanding the fact that the 16 did not express enough personal interest in the clemency process to file their own applications, the White House appeared eager to assist throughout the process. Meetings were held with supporters, and some senior staff [i.e., Holder] even suggested ways to improve the likelihood of the President granting the clemency. Overall, the White House appears to have exercised more initiative than the terrorists themselves.