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."
Too big to indict?
Turning to the Justice department's Wall Street record, Holder rejected the criticism that prosecutors go easy on large companies based on their power or economic position.
"There are no institutions that are too big to indict," he said. "We have brought charges against thousands of people over the course of these last four-and-a-half years."
Federal prosecutors have certainly racked up record-breaking fines against some major financial companies, but most financial executives have avoid any jail time, and many companies pay fines without admitting any wrongdoing. (One exception is insider trading cases.)
Holder cited the JP Morgan investigation as an example of strong oversight, noting that prosecutors reached a tentative $13 billion settlement – without letting the bank off the hook. "Significantly, [the settlement] did not include a resolution of the criminal investigation that is ongoing," Holder said, "and could result in charges against either the institution or individuals" involved in misconduct.
Yet Holder also pushed back on the idea that these cases can be easily judged from afar. "People say these things without having the ability to look at the files that we have," Holder noted. "We have certain responsibilities to only bring those cases that we think we have an ability to prove beyond a reasonable doubt," he said.
And he suggested that some results may just be a matter of time. "I think people need to just be a little patient. I know it's been a while," he said, "but we have other things that are in the pipeline."
"We have ongoing investigations that I'm really not at liberty to talk about, but involve significant financial institutions," Holder continued, "and the focus of those investigations is not only on the institutions but on individuals as well. "
While relatively few people tied to the financial crisis are in jail, Holder believes too many drug users are incarcerated under outdated and ineffective laws – a core focus of his agenda during Obama's second term.
Veterans and justice
The attorney general was in Roanoke to visit a dedicated veterans' court, a new program that prioritizes rehabilitation, instead of jail, for selected veterans battling substance abuse. It is only the second such federal court in the nation. Holder is calling for more through his "smart on crime" initiative.
Speaking at the court, as several successful graduates of the program looked on, Holder said court-mandated rehabilitation can break the "cycle of crime and incarceration." Holder believes providing that service, and that second chance, is essential for veterans. "We owe them in the most profound of ways," he said.
Holder also used the visit to endorse legislation to reduce disparities in drug sentencing, the Smarter Sentencing Act. The bill, sponsored by tea party favorite Sen. Mike Lee and Democratic Majority Whip Dick Durbin, has drawn attention for its bipartisan approach to reforming the war on drugs. A related proposal has the backing of Senators Rand Paul and Pat Leahy.
Reflecting on his tenure, including one of the longest stints as attorney general in the modern era, Holder said he hopes these reforms set a new standard.
A 'smart' legacy
"I would hope that one of the things that people look back on and say that we got right was to do things in a different way," he said, "not to reflexively say that we were simply 'tough on crime,' but, as we use the phrase, to be smart on crime."
In that vein, Holder touched on the widely documented racial disparities in criminal sentencing.
"This mass incarceration happens with a cost," he said. "If you look at the way it impacts certain communities," Holder continued, "let's be honest about this, communities of color -- where young men who should be the future of these communities are taken out, labeled" and prevented from pursuing life as "productive citizens" – they often bear the brunt of tough sentences.
"People have to be held accountable for individual decisions that they make," Holder stressed, "but we need to have proportionate penalties" and the chance for people to rehabilitate after making a mistake. He pointed to the excess of mandatory minimums in the War on Drugs, a practice he reformed last August.
"I think we have a moment in time now where Congress, as well as those of us in the executive branch, [may] pull back just a bit." He continued, "I hope that will be a part of my legacy."
Watch Part I of Ari Melber's msnbc interview with Eric Holder, on Edward Snowden, Gov. Bob McDonnell and President Obama's view of marijuana laws, here.