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Barr Blasts His Own Prosecutors: 'All Power Is Vested In The Attorney General'

U.S. Attorney General William Barr, seen here in Phoenix on Sept. 10, called his colleagues at the Justice Department a "permanent bureaucracy" in a speech Wednesday.
Bob Christie
U.S. Attorney General William Barr, seen here in Phoenix on Sept. 10, called his colleagues at the Justice Department a "permanent bureaucracy" in a speech Wednesday.

Updated at 8:22 a.m. ET

Attorney General Bill Barr blasted his own Justice Department prosecutors as a "permanent bureaucracy" that all too often abuse their power to go after high-profile targets in a process he likened to "headhunting."

In remarks Wednesday to a largely conservative audience celebrating Constitution Day at Hillsdale College, the leader of the Justice Department asserted that he's the one who should make the big calls in cases of national interest.

"The notion that line prosecutors should make the final decisions at the Department of Justice is completely crazy," Barr said.

"Under the law, all prosecutorial power is vested in the attorney general. And these people are agents of the attorney general. As I say to FBI agents, 'Whose agent do you think you are?' Now, I don't say this in a pompous way, but that is the chain of authority and legitimacy in the Department of Justice."

Barr didn't mention particular prosecutions, but he's faced steady criticism over his decisions to intervene in cases to help people close to President Trump, including longtime political adviser Roger Stone and former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Some prosecutors have quit in response to Barr's interventions. Two current Justice employees testified last summer on Capitol Hill about political interference at a whistleblower hearing.

The attorney general saved most of his ire for his own Justice Department ranks. At one point, he likened junior prosecutors to children in preschool.

"Letting the most junior members set the agenda might be a good philosophy for a Montessori preschool, but it's no way to run a federal agency," Barr said.

Later, in arguing for more "detachment" from his prosecutors, Barr referenced lines from C.S. Lewis, who frequently wrote about religious themes: "'It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies,'" Barr said. "'The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth.'"

The comments drew reaction from former Justice officials, including President Barack Obama's attorney general, Eric Holder, and onetime civil division chief Jody Hunt, who left his post as assistant attorney general earlier this year.

During a question-and-answer period after his formal remarks, Barr reiterated his concerns about voting by mail in the November presidential race, echoing unfounded claims by the president about possible fraud without providing evidence other than "common sense."

Barr took a swipe at the legal skills of former staff members for special counsel Robert Mueller, who investigated Russia's attack on the 2016 election and whose report detailed how the Trump campaign welcomed that interference.

In response to a question about religious services and First Amendment freedoms during the coronavirus pandemic, Barr said this of the idea of national COVID-19 lockdowns: "Other than slavery, which was a different kind of restraint, this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history."

Later, he addressed the Black Lives Matter movement. "They're not interested in Black lives. They're interested in props, a small number of Blacks who are killed by police during conflicts with police — usually less than a dozen a year — who they can use as props to achieve a much broader political agenda."

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Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.
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