By Andrew Romano
On Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder, who is widely expected to step down from his post sometime after this year's midterm elections, provided Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric with an exclusive inside look at the domestic and international challenges that will define what may be his final months at the Justice Department, touching on everything from President Barack Obama's recent assault on the shadowy al-Qaida affiliate known as Khorasan to his own sweeping plans for sentencing reform. And perhaps thinking about his legacy, Holder brashly defended his ill-fated decision to try alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civilian court, the most controversial move of his tenure.
Speaking only hours after the administration expanded its ongoing air war against Islamic extremists into Syria, Holder revealed that Khorasan — a militant group new to most Americans but "known to [the White House] for two years," according to Holder — had been "very close" to launching a terror attack on the U.S. prior to Monday's bombing campaign.
"We hit them last night out of a concern that they were getting close to an execution date of some of the plans that we have seen fomenting over the last two years,” he told Couric. “And the hitting that we did last night, I think, will probably continue until we are at a stage where we think we have degraded their ability to get at our allies or to the homeland.”
Holder would not confirm reports that the Khorasan terror plot involved American and European aircraft, but he did link the group directly to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson’s decision in early July to forbid uncharged cellphones, laptops, and other electronic devices on some U.S.-bound flights originating overseas.
"I can say that the enhanced security measures that we took [in] the aviation sector some months ago," he said, "[were] based on concerns we had about what the Khorasan group was planning to do."
Speaking about the Islamic State, the other target of Obama's airstrikes in Syria, Holder confirmed that "some [American IS fighters] have come back" to the U.S. from Iraq and Syria but insisted that the Justice Department is "keeping track of them" — and would be announcing as early as Wednesday a new joint effort with the international police organization INTERPOL to monitor their movements.
"Right now ... we have red notices that we use for people who are charged with crimes," he said. "But we're gonna come up with a new kind of notice that deals with people who are suspected of engaging in terrorist activities."
At the same time, Holder expressed dismay at the fact that American citizens were joining IS in the first place and admitted that his Justice Department was still struggling to counter the influence of social media on budding extremists.
"It is the thing that keeps me up at night — the notion that you have individuals in the United States who are looking at computer screens and who are becoming radicalized," he said. "[We] want to identify who those people are, what the risk factors are, and work with community leaders [and] with law enforcement [to] come up with ways in which we kind of break that link."
Turning to the long-delayed Guantanamo Bay trial of Mohammed, Holder lashed out at his critics, claiming that if his original recommendation for a civilian trial had not been blocked by Congress, the plight of victims' families, who have been awaiting justice for more than a decade, would have ended long ago.
"Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his confederates would be on death row right now," Holder said, and then repeated the words “right now” for emphasis. He slammed the military trial as a "political" decision that has "prevented" the Justice Department "from doing that which we have shown ourselves to be very capable of."
On the domestic front, Holder framed his ongoing fight to reduce the sentences of nonviolent drug offenders as one of the major civil rights issues of our time.
"We have seen taken from various communities across the country young men [who] didn't need to go to jail for as long as they did," he told Couric. "I'm determined to confront [this problem] as long as I'm attorney general."
To that end, Holder said the Justice Department was in the process of granting clemency to nonviolent federal drug offenders who have served at least 10 years in prison. He also said that the federal government should consider decriminalizing marijuana.
"The question of whether or not [marijuana and heroin] should be in the same category is something that I think we need to ask ourselves," he said.
In the wake of the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Holder confessed that he personally sympathized with black residents of that city who felt they had been racially profiled by police.
"You know, I'm attorney general of the United States," he said. "But I'm also an African American who has been stopped unnecessarily. I talked to them about two traffic stops I had to deal with on the New Jersey Turnpike [and] how I was stopped running down the streets of Georgetown to get to a movie with my cousin.
"The interesting part of that is I was stopped late at night," Holder continued. "It was dark. I was a federal prosecutor at the time that I was stopped and asked to produce some identification to a police officer. So yeah — on a very personal level, I understand the feelings that they expressed to me."
Watch the complete interview: