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Eric Holder’s Legacy

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Mark Gordon - published on 09/30/14 - updated on 06/08/17

Attorney general's accomplishments haven’t matched prodigious tenure

Last Thursday, the 82nd Attorney General of the United States, Eric Holder, announced his resignation pending the confirmation of his successor by the United States Senate. Holder, the first African-American to serve as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, took office along with President Obama on January 20, 2009, making him the third longest serving Attorney General in American history.

Sadly, Holder’s accomplishments haven’t matched that prodigious tenure. From the beginning, Holder has been a lightning rod for criticism, and not just from Republicans and others on the Right.

Holder took over the Department of Justice (DOJ) in the immediate aftermath of the economic crisis of 2008. And yet, he has steadfastly refused to prosecute any of the senior banking executives and regulators whose personal malfeasance drove the economy over the cliff. Even the so-called “too big to fail” banks themselves have largely avoided institutional penalties commensurate with the roles they played in creating the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Is it any coincidence that Holder’s former (and future) law firm represents Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Freddie Mac and other major financial players?

Holder oversaw the DOJ’s aggressive investigation of journalists it believed might be cooperating with government leakers, going so far as to name Fox News’s James Rosen a “criminal co-conspirator” in secret documents. He also defended the National Security Agency’s warrantless collection of metadata — mostly phone and email logs from millions of Americans, even after a federal court and at least one federal oversight board declared that the practice was unconstitutional. 

Perhaps the loudest Republican complaints about Holder’s performance centered on Operation Fast and Furious, a complicated “gunwalking” sting aimed at staunching the flow of weapons from the United States to Mexican drug gangs. Operation Fast and Furious was built on a similar and similarly failed Bush Administration operation called Operation Wide Receiver. It began in 2009 and involved the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) using gun shops in the Southwest as fronts for selling and then tracking high-powered weapons to their ultimate buyers in Mexico.

At least that was the theory behind the operation. Unfortunately, at least 2,000 weapons vanished into the criminal black hole on the US-Mexico border, only to resurface later in investigations into the killings of Mexican police and soldiers, as well as the murders of US Border Patrol agent Brian Terry and Jaime Zapata, an agent of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

In testimony before Congress, Holder claimed he wasn’t aware of Operation Fast and Furious until early 2011, but the Republican-led House Judiciary Committee produced documents that indicated Holder had received and responded to memos on the subject prior to 2011. A party-line vote of the Committee recommended that the full House declare Holder in contempt of Congress, and on June 28, 2012, Holder became the first sitting Attorney General to be held in criminal and civil contempt of Congress. The Obama Administration cited executive privilege in refusing to prosecute Holder, and the DOJ’s Inspector General’s office later cleared him of any charges. Subsequent attempts by House Republicans to impeach Holder have gone nowhere.

Holder has also tended to exacerbate rather than heal America’s racial divisions. In 2009, he called the United States “a nation of cowards” on race, and this summer he charged — perhaps correctly, but not helpfully

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