(NNPA)__After eight years of retreat from basic values, the U.S. Department of Justice, under the direction of Attorney General Eric Holder, is reclaiming its historic role as a champion of human and civil rights. Two recent actions emphatically make the point.
First, on Aug. 24, at the urging of the Justice Department’s ethics division, the attorney general appointed respected independent prosecutor, John H. Durham to conduct a preliminary investigation to determine whether CIA officers and contractors broke the law in their interrogation of 9/11 detainees. A recently released CIA report confirms that in addition to a number of questionable deaths, interrogation tactics included intimidation by power drill, the practice of waterboarding and threats of sexual assault on the mother of a detainee.
Holder’s decision to look more deeply into these and other troubling allegations seems to contradict President Obama’s stated preference for looking forward rather than looking back at possible cases of torture sanctioned by the Bush administration. But the president has indicated that he supports the attorney general’s prosecutorial independence in this and other matters of law. We share that view. Acknowledging that his decision would be controversial, Holder added, “As attorney general, it is my duty to examine the facts and to follow the law. In this case...it is clear to me that this review is the only responsible course of action for me to take.”
Attorney General Holder has also recently called for a reinvigoration of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, which since 1957 has been charged with enforcing the nation’s anti-discrimination laws in areas such as housing, employment, voting and criminal justice. It is clear that during the previous administration that commitment suffered. In addition to its well-documented attempts to politicize Justice Department appointments, the Bush administration turned a blind eye to numerous cases of discrimination involving African- Americans and other minorities.
As reported in the New York Times, “Under the Bush administration, the agency shifted away from its traditional focus on accusations of racial discrimination...Department officials are working to rebuild the division’s more traditional efforts on behalf of minorities.”
Declaring that “the Civil Rights Division is once again open for business,” Holder plans to increase its budget by 18 percent and add 50 new lawyers to more aggressively combat all forms of discrimination, including predatory lending, sentencing disparities and voter suppression. He has also called for the Senate to drop its hold on Thomas Perez, President Obama’s nominee to head the Civil Rights Division. The delay in Perez’s confirmation is impeding the important work of the division and is a gross disservice to the American people. The Senate is urged to confirm Tom Perez immediately.
In our view, nothing is more important to America’s future than ensuring that we remain, as John Adams once proclaimed, “a nation of laws, not men.” We applaud the attorney general’s commitment to that founding principle as demonstrated by his recent actions to uphold international law and reclaim the Justice Department’s historic focus on civil rights.
(Marc H. Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.)
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