ORONO, Maine — The recently foiled terrorist plot involving suspects in Denver and New York is proof that national security threats are real.
Yet U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Friday at the University of Maine that the plot was thwarted through collaboration among government agencies, including his own staff at the Department of Justice, and a commitment to following the rule of law.
“The alleged plot in Colorado and New York to detonate an explosive device in the United States was one of the most serious threats this nation’s faced since 9-11,” Holder told an audience of about 850 gathered at the Collins Center for the Arts where the attorney general delivered the William S. Cohen Lecture. “This wasn’t merely an aspirational plot with no chance of success. This plot was serious. It was developed. And had it not been disrupted it could have led to the loss of American lives.”
Holder, the first black American to be appointed attorney general, was joined onstage by Cohen, the secretary of defense under President Clinton and a three-term U.S. senator who grew up in Bangor.
Holder served as deputy attorney general under President Clinton from 1997 to 2001, after which time he went into private practice. President Obama nominated Holder to the attorney general position, and Holder was confirmed on Feb. 2.
In returning to the Department of Justice, Holder said, the department appeared to have been “transformed” by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“The department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation had built new capabilities to defend the country from terrorist attacks,” he said. “These capabilities were focused not just on prosecuting those who wanted to harm our nation but also disrupting plots before they happened.”
There is also an increased collaboration among government agencies, Holder added.
“Working together led to the disruption of this plot before any Americans could be harmed,” he said. “But the system, our system, has to work every time. We cannot miss even one time. We cannot rest for even one day, and we will not.”
The focus on investigation includes taking tips from sources ranging from international operatives to concerned citizens at the local level, Holder said, and pursuing those tips with available resources.
Along with the increase in surveillance, however, has come an increased need for legal oversight, Holder said, and the understanding that counterterrorism work must operate in compliance with laws.
“Everything that we do is subject to strict procedures and oversight by the courts and Congress to ensure that our investigations are adequately safeguarding individual liberties,” he said.
The lecture and Holder’s visit were sponsored by the William S. Cohen Center for International Policy and Commerce at UMaine.
During a wide-ranging question-and-answer session, Holder revealed that Cohen was considered for the vice president position that eventually went to Joe Biden.
“He had one problem,” said Holder, who helped Barack Obama vet candidates in the summer of 2008. “He was John McCain’s best man at his wedding. We just thought, that’s going to be difficult.”
Cohen, a Republican who was the first elected official in modern U.S. history to be appointed to a Cabinet position by a president from an opposing party, criticized the Republican Party for swinging too far right and failing to embrace more moderate views.
“When I’m asked if I’m still a Republican, I say yes, I’m a Maine Republican,” he said, eliciting laughter and applause from the audience. “I think most people are in the middle, frankly, and most people want to see their government work.”
After the lecture, Holder told a group of press members that people who live in states that have an international border, such as Maine, must understand the need for increased security at checkpoints.
“We focus a lot of attention on our southern border for a variety of reasons and we have not paid, I think, in the past, sufficient enough attention to our northern border, especially when one looks at the desire on the part of at least some terrorist groups to use Canada as an entryway into the United States,” he said.
The audience at the Collins Center included University of Maine System Chancellor Richard L. Pattenaude, Maine first lady Karen Baldacci, Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley, and high-profile criminal defense attorney F. Lee Bailey.
At the end of the event, UMaine President Robert Kennedy presented Cohen and Holder, each former college basketball stars, with basketballs signed by UMaine women’s basketball team head coach Cindy Blodgett.