While much of Attorney General Eric Holder's legacy rightly will be defined by the improvements he made in areas of civil rights and criminal justice reform, it will also be defined by deeply harmful actions — and failures to act.
Under Holder, the Justice Department approved the targeted killing of civilians, including Americans, without judicial review, and the Obama administration fought for years to keep the justifications for such efforts secret.
In the zeal to stop leaks of government information, Holder brought more prosecutions under the Espionage Act than during all previous presidencies combined.
In tracking the sources of leaks, prosecutors seized phone and email records of journalists who were doing their jobs. Holder used claims of government secrecy and immunity to toss out lawsuits seeking accountability for torture and other criminal abuses committed in the war on terror.
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On the financial front, he did not prosecute a single prominent banker or firm in connection with the subprime mortgage crisis that nearly destroyed the economy.
Of course, Holder has always served at the pleasure of the president, who has his own policy priorities and political survival to consider. At his best, Holder stepped up and said things that President Barack Obama could not or would not say. And in wielding the muscle of his office, in a job of exasperating complications and irreconcilable conflicts, Holder has worked to increase justice for many of America's most dispossessed or forgotten citizens.
New York Times
He let execs who crashed economy escape justice
Attorney General Eric Holder, will probably be remembered above all for something he didn't do: prosecute top executives for their role in the 2008 financial crisis. He declined not because he wished to be soft on financial crime but because of a strategic error. In a 1999 memorandum, written when he was deputy attorney general under President Bill Clinton, he'd explained how prosecutors could charge corporations as criminal enterprises.
In 2002, the testing of that doctrine on Enron Corp. auditor Arthur Andersen caused the company to fold, and thousands of people lost their jobs.
During and after the financial crisis, Holder moved more cautiously. Prosecutors were careful to leave companies standing, even as they extracted tens of billions of dollars from banks for transgressions ranging from mortgage-related fraud to laundering money for drug cartels.
Prosecutors lost sight of what mattered most: holding individuals, not companies, accountable for crimes. Of 21 separate actions against major financial companies, only eight were accompanied by charges against individuals, and none were high-level executives.
Failing to pursue individuals has sent executives the message that if they commit crimes, the worst that can happen is they'll lose their jobs and shareholders will have to pay up. This undermines the finance industry, and capitalism more broadly, by supporting the perception that Wall Street is a den of iniquity whose leaders operate with impunity.