Former Attorney-General Michael Mukasey has sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to commute the sentence of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard to time served, the Jerusalem Post reported.
Pollard, now 56, is a former intelligence analyst who was sentenced to life in prison in 1987 on charges of spying on the United States for Israel. He is incarcerated at a federal prison in North Carolina.
Mukasey wrote, “[Pollard] has not been alleged by anyone to have had any motive to harm the United States. In these circumstances, a life sentence can only be considered utterly disproportionate to the crime.”
“I had occasion myself to consider life sentences, and indeed to impose them,” Mukasey wrote, alluding to his service as a federal judge in the Southern District of New York. “In more than 18 years on the bench, I imposed such sentences on four defendants.”
Supporters of Pollard have contended that he acted only after discovering that information vital to Israel’s security, including data on the capabilities of Syria, Iraq, Libya and Iran to use weapons of mass destruction, was being withheld from Israel, a staunch ally of the United States.
Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said he would issue a formal public request to Obama to release Pollard. This will mark the first formal request by Israel for Pollard’s release, according to Haaretz, Israel’s oldest daily newspaper.
Pollard’s wife, Esther, said during a Wednesday interview with Israel Radio that her husband is in very ill health and has been hospitalized in prison three times recently, the Post reported.
Justice Department officials said Wednesday that Assistant U.S. Attorney Nora Dannehy has concluded that no criminal charges are warranted in connection with the Bush administration’s firings of U.S. Attorneys in 2006.
Attorney General Michael Mukasey appointed Dannehy, then-acting U.S. Attorney of Connecticut, in September 2008 as a special prosecutor to look into the firings, particularly that of former New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias.
Dannehy also was tasked with determining whether White House or DOJ officials made false statements to Congress or to the Justice Department’s Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility, which also investigated the dismissals.
Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legislative Affairs Ronald Weich disclosed Dannehy’s findings in a letter to House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) dated Wednesday.
“Evidence did not demonstrate that any prosecutable criminal offense was committed with regard to the removal of David Iglesias,” Weich wrote in the letter. “The investigative team also determined that the evidence did not warrant expanding the scope of the investigation beyond the removal of Iglesias.”
Justice Department officials said Wednesday that the probe is now closed. The inquiry focused on Iglesias and the findings outlined in the letter related to the investigation of his dismissal, they said. No wider investigation was determined to be necessary.
According to Weich, Dannehy and her investigative team concluded that DOJ leadership never made a determination as to whether complaints about Iglesias were legitimate.
“While the actions of DOJ leadership were contrary to DOJ principles, they were not intended to and did not influence or in any way impede voter fraud prosecutions or a particular public corruption case,” Weich said.
The investigation also found that there was insufficient evidence to establish that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Kyle Sampson, the Attorney General’s Chief of Staff, “knowingly made material false statements to OIG/OPR or Congress or corruptly endeavored to obstruct justice.”
Reached by Main Justice Wednesday, Gonzales said he had not yet reviewed the letter, but had heard the result of the investigation. He declined to comment until he had an opportunity to review the letter himself.
In an interview with Main Justice last month, Gonzales said he hoped the investigation would wrap up soon. He also said he needed to raise additional money to cover his legal bills related to the matter.
“We need to do a better effort raising additional money, and so we’re going to try to do that as soon as the last investigation [ends],” said Gonzales. “That investigation has been out there going on forever. I’m not sure what’s going on there, but we’re waiting for that to be completed. And once that’s completed — I have confidence that again [there was] no wrong-doing by me — that will again raise some interest in raising additional money.”
Conyers said in a statement that it was clear that Dannehy’s decision not to bring criminal charges “is not an exoneration of Bush officials in the U.S. Attorney matter as there is no dispute that these firings were totally improper and that misleading testimony was given to Congress in an effort to cover them up.”
He also pointed out that the probe “did not conclude that administration officials testified truthfully to Congress,” only that there was insufficient evidence to show they knowingly made false statement.
“I appreciate Attorney General Holder’s commitment to ensure that such conduct will not happen again,” Conyers said. “I am proud of the committee’s effort to bring the facts of this controversy to light, so that the American people themselves can judge the how Bush Justice Department abused our trust.”
Gonzales’ lawyer, former Deputy Attorney General George J. Terwilliger III, said the Justice Department’s conclusion was long overdue.
“Those who made unwarranted allegations to the contrary owe him an apology,” said Terwilliger, a partner with White & Case LLP. “After having spent months cooperating with inquiries that produced no evidence of his wrongdoing, Judge Gonzales is pleased to be free to resume a career marked to date by service to the public.”
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At an event in the Great Hall Monday honoring the contributions of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department is working to “[live] up to its responsibility to provide a work environment where every employee is respected and given an equal opportunity to thrive.”
Holder also pointed to the Obama administration’s accomplishments on LGBT issues including the new federal hate crimes law — the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act that the president signed into law in October — and the Justice Department’s recent decision that the Violence Against Women Act covers same-sex partners.
“We have much to celebrate today. In the year since we last gathered, our nation – and the Justice Department – have taken steps to address some of the unique challenges faced by members of our country’s LGBT community,” said Holder in remarks at the annual DOJ LGBT Pride Month event.
DOJ Pride was founded in 1994, and flourished when Janet Reno was Attorney General. Attorneys General John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales later banned the group from using Justice Department facilities. Attorney General Michael Mukasey welcomed DOJ Pride back to the Great Hall in 2008, and DOJ Pride President Chris Hook said the event has grown in size since the Obama administration took over in January 2009.
During his remarks, Holder also touted the DOJ’s new Diversity Management Plan — which calls for greater diversity in such areas as hiring, promotions and retention — and the appointment of former acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Channing Phillips to manage the implementation of the plan as Deputy Associate Attorney General for Diversity.
“With this initiative, and with Channing’s leadership, we’re working to ensure that the department can effectively recruit, hire, retain, and develop a workforce that reflects our nation’s rich diversity, a department that welcomes and encourages the contributions of its LGBT employees,” Holder said.
Holder did not address some of the controversies that LGBT advocates have raised with the Department of Justice, such as the DOJ’s defense of the Defense of Marriage Act and the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.
Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez introduced the keynote speaker, U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan, the first openly gay federal prosecutor to head a U.S Attorney’s office.
“What a difference two years makes,” Durkan said. “Today I stand before you as the first openly gay U.S. Attorney. But I can promise you I’m not the last. In fact, today there are three Senate confirmed openly gay U.S. Attorneys in America.
“Two followed me. I started a trend. But I do want to point out, they’re all women. So guys, you need to step it up,” Durkan joked.
She also praised Holder’s work on the LGBT issues, saying that “there is nobody more committed to equality and justice across America than our Attorney General Eric Holder.”
Sharon Lubinski, the first openly gay U.S. Marshal, also spoke at the ceremony and was introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).
Officials in attendance at the event included Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division Tony West; Assistant Attorney General Ignacia Moreno of the Environment and Natural Resources Division; U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana Jim Letten; U.S. Attorney for Minnesota B. Todd Jones; U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Paul Fishman; and Chris Dudley, Deputy Director of the U.S. Marshals Service.
DOJ Pride also gave out three awards, including to two local advocates for same-sex marriage. D.C. Councilmember David A. Catania, the force behind the law that made same-sex marriage legal in the District of Columbia, received the Gerald B. Roemer Community Service Award along with Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler. Gansler was an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the District of Columbia under then-U.S. Attorney Holder.
Hook received the James R. Douglass Award for his leadership of DOJ Pride. He took over in 2006, when the group had shrank dramatically during the Bush administration, but it has since grown back to the size it was during the Clinton administration.
Hook made it clear when he took over the organization in 2006 that DOJ Pride “did not intend to go into hiding,” said Marc Salans, Assistant Director of the Office of Attorney Recruitment and Management, who presented the award.
The event was sponsored by the Department of Justice, the Justice Management Division’s Equal Employment Opportunity staff and DOJ Pride.
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Assistant United States Attorney John Durham is close to completing a preliminary review of whether there is evidence that CIA agents or contractors violated the law when they used brutal methods to interrogate terror detainees, Attorney General Eric Holder said in speech Thursday night.
Holder, speaking in a question and answer session after his remarks at the University of the District of Columbia Law School, said Durham is ”close to the end of the time that he needs and will be making some recommendations to me.”
Holder’s comments were his fullest status report to date on the one of the Justice Department’s most politically sensitive inquiries. On Friday, several Justice officials cautioned that although Durham is nearing completion, it may take weeks or months to absorb his findings and decide what steps, if any, to pursue next.
Holder said the investigation would determine whether any intelligence officers or contractors went beyond the restrictions, outlined by the Office of Legal Counsel in a series of classified legal opinions which were written during the George W. Bush administration and which have since been disavowed.
The preliminary inquiry has created tensions between the Justice Department and the CIA, key partners in the government’s effort against international terrorism. Leon Panetta, the CIA Director, opposed Holder’s decision to open the inquiry in to the agents’ conduct, and in November 2009, seven former CIA directors wrote to President Barack Obama asking him to halt the investigation.
The interrogation opinions permitted harsh techniques like waterboarding that Holder has said amounted to torture. The opinions also directed that the interrogations, using so called “enhanced techniques,” be carried under rules intended to prevent serious injury or death, though human rights groups have condemned the methods.
“What I made clear is that for those people who acted in conformity with Justice Department opinions from the Office of Legal Counsel that said you could do certain things… people who acted in good faith in line with the Department of Justice guidance, will not be the people we are looking at or interested in,” Holder said Thursday.
“It’s a question of whether people went beyond those pretty far-out OLC opinions, people who went beyond that,” Holder said. “That’s what we’re looking at.”
Durham was appointed in August 2009 to look into the treatment of prisoners at so-called “black sites” overseas. In 2008, Durham had been appointed by then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey to investigate the destruction of dozens of CIA videotapes of detainee interrogations. Holder made no mention of the status of that aspect of Durham’s inquiry.
At the appointment in August, Holder said “neither the opening of a preliminary review nor, if evidence warrants it, the commencement of a full investigation, means that charges will necessarily follow.”
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Republicans returning from their week-long recess are trying to turn up the heat on the Obama administration over efforts by White House operatives to discuss the possibility of jobs with two Democratic primary candidates if they dropped out of their races.
Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the senior Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement on Friday that he wanted hearings to investigate the issue.
“I am concerned that the Obama administration has engaged in a habit of attempting to manipulate the democratic election process to benefit the Democratic Party. Such actions are certainly unethical and may very well be criminal,” Smith said.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has previously said the Justice Department should appoint a special prosecutor to look into the allegations.
The swirl of accusations involving the White House, including back-room deal-making and promises of jobs in exchange for political favors, has led some Republicans to suspect a juicy potential scandal. But as the facts are known, so far anyway, not many lawyers, not even Republican stalwarts, think anybody broke the law.
Steven G. Bradbury, the acting head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel under President George W. Bush, told Politico that the president can fill advisory positions in whatever method he wishes, including to “reward political loyalty.” His remarks followed those of former Attorney General Michael Mukasey who has said that finding criminality was “really a stretch.”
Bradbury offered a fuller legal analysis. ”Under the Constitution,” he said, “ it’s the president’s prerogative to fill advisory positions in the White House and to decide who will occupy senior policy offices across the administration,” said Bradbury, who suggested that Congress should not attempt to criminalize the appointment process.
“The president may make those appointment decisions for any reason he deems appropriate,” Bradbury said, “ including to reward political loyalty, and it would raise serious constitutional issues if Congress tried to prohibit the president, or anyone acting on his behalf, from offering appointments in particular circumstances.”
“For that reason,” Bradbury continued, “any statute that purports to criminalize an offer of appointment must be construed, if at all possible, not to interfere with the president’s constitutional authority, and if the statute cannot be read to avoid that result, there’s a strong argument it would be unconstitutional as so applied.”
Justice Department officials have expressed no interest in opening an inquiry. The White House has defended its actions. In one case, according to a report issued last week by White House counsel Robert Bauer, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel asked former President Bill Clinton to raise the possibility of an unpaid presidential appointment to Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA), who was challenging and defeated Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA) in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary.
This week another episode emerged. Colorado senatorial candidate Andrew Romanoff said that White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina brought up three positions that he might be interested in as an alternative to running against the administration’s preferred candidate, incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet.
Peter Zeidenberg, a former Justice Department prosecutor who worked in the Public Integrity Section and now works at DLA Piper, had earlier said that the Sestak offer wasn’t a crime.
“It sounds like political horsetrading and I don’t think a prosecutor would have any interest in prosecuting such a case. It doesn’t sound to me anything like a bribe,” Zeidenberg said. “You’d be laughed out of the courtroom.”
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In late 2008, a turf battle between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the New York City Police Department was brewing. Overlap in counterterrorism work had always been a source of tension between the local cops and the feds. But the situation reached a boiling point when the contents of tense letters between then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly on warrants for domestic electronic monitoring of terrorism suspects were published in The New York Times.
To improve that relationship, FBI Director Robert Mueller brought former FBI agent Joe Demarest back to the bureau from his brief stint in the private sector to head the FBI’s New York Division. Just five months later, in May 2009, both federal and New York officials said the relationship had improved.
Now the man who brought about that change has been reassigned to FBI headquarters in Washington, awaiting the results of an investigation into statements he made about his relationship with a colleague. Several outlets have reported that relationship was with Teresa Carlson, an FBI intelligence official who previously headed the white collar section of the New York office’s Criminal Division and was recently promoted to a position in Washington.
The FBI is publicly saying that Demarest is working on a project in D.C., former Newsday reporter Len Levitt wrote in the Huffington Post. FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said that Demarest was helping to develop a computerized crime strategy program, something called Strategy Performance Sessions, or ‘COMPSTAT LITE,’ reported Levitt.
The investigation by the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility into Demarest’s statements about the relationship has been going on for months, according to those familiar with the situation.
The investigation is focused on Demarest’s statements about the relationship, rather than the relationship itself. Internal FBI guidelines do not ban personal relationships, but do require recusal in career decision such as bonuses, which are usually decided by a board, according to a former federal official. Levitt reported that it was not clear how much influence Demarest had over Carlson’s career, but there was always at least a level of management between the two.
Mueller’s choice of Demarest to head the New York office upset many rank-and-file FBI agents, who felt that Mueller had gone outside the chain of command by bringing on a former agent who left for a lucrative position in the private sector.
In early 2008, Demarest had been seen as the odds-on favorite to take over the New York office, even working with Mueller on a top-secret project. But Demarest reportedly did not want to be assigned to FBI headquarters in D.C. — considered a must in order to climb the ladder — and announced his retirement to become the head of international security for Goldman Sachs.
The move was especially surprising because Demarest left at age 48, only months shy of 50 when he would have been eligible for a full pension for life.
After less than a year at Goldman, Mueller lured Demarest back to the FBI, believing he could improve the bureau’s relationship with what some FBI agents called the “renegades” in the NYPD counter-terrorism unit.
Within the FBI, “there was a lot of concern over the fact that he had left and then came back,” one former federal official said. “There were a lot of people who wanted the job, and bringing back someone who had quit certainly ruffled a lot of feathers.”
Several former federal law enforcement officials said the complaint that sparked the investigation into Demarest could have originated with someone who felt passed over for the position as New York City’s top G-Man.
“It very well could be sour grapes, that somebody had a beef,” one official said.
Others pointed out that many in the FBI disliked Demarest’s management style.
“The New York office is celebrating Demarest’s demise because he bullied subordinates but let the New York Police Department bully the bureau,” a retired senior FBI official told The New York Daily News.
Demarest and Kelly share a lot in common. They’re both fitness enthusiasts, sharp dressers and have a military bearing, according to a NPR profile when Demarest was tapped in 2008. Under Demarest’s leadership, the relationship between the FBI and NYPD has reportedly improved.
Seeking peace, FBI officials downplayed NYPD’s mistake of contacting an informant who tipped off now admitted terrorist Najibullah Zazi about the FBI’s ongoing investigation, nearly derailing it altogether.
NYPD officials reassigned personnel because of the mistake — an unusual admission of the error — and the controversy over the lapse flared up for only a couple of days.
One federal law enforcement official said that Demarest had made “significant inroads” in improving the FBI’s rapport with the NYPD, an impressive achievement, as changing the dynamic between the two agencies was like trying to “turn an aircraft carrier around,” he said.
Joe Palazzolo contributed to this article.
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It isn’t often these days that former Attorney General Michael Mukasey- a fierce critic of current Attorney General Eric Holder’s national security policices — has anything his successor likely enjoys hearing. But today, Mukasey penned an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal calling attacks on the Justice Department lawyers who represented terrorism-related detainees in the past “shoddy and dangerous.”
Mukasey’s motive, however, appears to be somewhat more political than the top conservative lawyers who denounced the ad that debuted last week by a group run by Liz Cheney, the former vice president’s daughter. The ad referred to the DOJ lawyers as the “al-Qaeda Seven” and questioned their loyalty to the United States.
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Instead, Mukasey said the same logic that makes it abhorrent to demonize lawyers who take on unpopular clients should be applied to former Office of Legal Counsel lawyers John Yoo and Jay Bybee, who authored the so-called “torture memos.”
“A lawyer who represents a party in a contested matter has an ethical obligation to make any and all tenable legal arguments that will help that party, Mukasey wrote. “A lawyer in public service, particularly one dealing with sensitive matters of national security, has the obligation to authorize any step or practice the law permits in order to keep the nation and its citizens safe.”
Likewise, a “lawyer who undertakes to represent someone whom his neighbors—perhaps rightly—revile as a threat to the public welfare is obligated to bring his talents to bear” as forcibly as possible, he wrote.
As Attorney General, Mukasey objected to a draft report by the DOJ’s internal watchdog organization that found Yoo and Bybee had committed professional misconduct by cherry-picking legal arguments to buttress an expansive view of executive power. The report’s conclusions were scaled back by the DOJ’s top career official, David Margolis, who ruled the OLC lawyers had been guilty instead of “poor judgment.”
Yoo, the primary author of the memos, concluded the president had the power to authorize harsh interrogation methods such as waterboarding, despite U.S. laws and treaty obligations against torture.
In his 2008 Senate confirmation hearing, Mukasey, a former New York federal judge, hedged when asked whether he considered waterboarding to be torture. Holder, by contrast, said he viewed waterboarding as torture during his own Senate confirmation hearing last year.
The Justice Department lawyers under attack for working in the private sector on behalf of detainees include Assistant Attorney General Tony West, who defended the “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh; and Neal Katyal, the deputy Solicitor General who successfully argued the 2006 Hamdan v. Rumsfeld case before the Supreme Court. In Hamdan, the Court found that President Bush’s military commissions violated the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
An organization called Keep America Safe is running the attack ads. It was founded by Liz Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney; and conservative writer Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard.
In his Wall Street Journal op-ed, Mukasey linked the work of lawyers on detainee rights to the criticism of Yoo and Bybee for authorizing harsh interrogation techniques. He writes: “Political disagreements with the Bush administration fueled and still fuel much of the intensity underlying attacks on” Yoo and Bybee, adding, “the results achieved by lawyers representing Guantanamo detainees have had a good deal to do with the criticism of them.”
The former Attorney General also said he believed the Supreme Court wrongly decided Hamdan and the 2008 Boumediene v. Bush case, which established habeas corpus rights for detainees. But Mukasey wrote: “I stop well short of blaming the outcome on lawyers who argued successfully.”
He concluded: “If the Department of Justice comes to attract only lawyers who have spent their professional energy principally in avoiding matters of controversy, the quality of lawyers willing to serve at the department will decline, and the department will suffer, as will we all.”
Ari Shapiro, the award-winning correspondent for National Public Radio who has covered the Department of Justice for five years, is moving up the media food chain. He’ll begin covering the White House in the coming weeks, focusing on national security and legal issues.
Since he began covering the Justice Department in 2005, Shapiro has broken several major DOJ stories in addition to covering broader legal issues and more recently filling in as host of NPR’s Morning Edition. He was the first NPR reporter to be made a correspondent before age 30, according to his biography on the NPR Web site. He also recently made his on-stage debut at the Hollywood Bowl, singing a song he recorded for the band Pink Martini’s latest album.
Main Justice interviewed Shapiro about his new job on Wednesday morning.
When do you start at the White House?
It’s going to be somewhere in the next few weeks, we don’t have a specific start date yet, partly because NPR is in the process of hiring a new Justice Department correspondent, and they may have me sort of straddle both beats for a little while while they go through that process. But there are two other White House correspondents, and so they have been on the beat for a very long time and do a masterful job at it so there isn’t the most urgent pressing need for me to get over there immediately, but it will be some time in the next few weeks.
What types of stories will you be covering?
Generally the way White House coverage works at NPR is that there is [...] sort of a three-week rotation, so one week you’re in the White House covering the daily breaking news and then two weeks you’re doing sort of more “big picture” stories. The other two White House correspondents are Mara Liasson and Scott Horsley. Mara primarily seems to focus on political issues, Scott has tended to focus on economic issues, and I think that NPR’s thought is that I will focus on national security and legal issues, so I may be reporting on many of the same kinds of things that I have covered at Justice but from the perspective of the White House instead of from DOJ.
As you look back at the stories you’ve covered, what stories are you most proud of and which were the most fun to cover?
Well the most fun is easy — going to Baghdad with Attorney General Michael Mukasey was an amazing experience. Donna Leinwand from USA Today and I went on the trip with him and it was just a whirlwind. By the time we finished our 12-hour stay in Baghdad and landed back in Doha [Qatar], nobody had slept in about three days.
I remember we were leaving the military base in Doha to go to the hotel that we were staying at and the Qatar soldiers would not let the convoy enter the country, would not let the convoy go through the check point to leave the military base and we were stalled there and I kept waiting for Attorney General Mukasey to get out of the SUV and storm up to the guards and say “Do you know who I am?” but he never did.
When we finally showed up at the hotel it must have been two or three in the morning and the Qatari attorney general and his entourage were there waiting to greet Attorney General Mukasey and of course all anybody wanted to do was go to sleep, but there was this reception there. Just the experience of being in the bubble of the Attorney General for 24 hours, and I think I spun out about four stories from that trip, was a great adventure.
In terms of other stories that I’ve done that I think have made a difference, I was proud of the story I did on Leslie Hagan, who was not renewed in her job because of a rumor that she was a lesbian. One of the things I’ve enjoyed about covering Justice was sort of getting out into the county and covering Justice as it relates to specific communities — going to Noxubee County, Miss. and covering the first ever case that alleged a violation of the Voting Rights Act by black elected officials against white voters was a great experience. Just recently going out to Suffolk County, Long Island, and covering a civil rights investigation there into whether local officials there have ignored hate crimes against Latinos in Suffolk County.
It has also been very interesting over the last five years to chart the way the federal government’s approach to terrorism has changed and sort of the way the federal government has figured out how to sort through these very complicated new problems and find the balance between the war model and the law enforcement model, and it’s obviously a debate that is continuing more than ever today. That has been very interesting to chart as court cases have made their way through the system and the Justice Department has changed its approach in response.
Specifically on the national security front, how have you seen that debate about the balance between law enforcement and war manifest itself? Has there been a shift in the new administration?
Just this week there was a New Yorker story in which Brad Berenson, who was in the White House counsel’s staff in the Bush administration, was quoted as saying from his perspective, on the national security front, the glass was 85 percent full, or something to that effect, he said basically things are 85 percent the same as they were during the Bush administration. I don’t know that I would put a specific percentage on it, but I think many people have said before, and I certainly appreciate their point of view, that it is in President Obama’s interest, and Vice President Dick Cheney’s interest, to portray a greater difference in national security policies between the last administration than in fact there actually is. Certainly, the language used to describe counter-terrorism efforts has changed dramatically. I think that although there have been changes in the policies, those policy changes have not been as dramatic as the language has.
So will you just dive in head first? How do you get a grasp on the broad range of issues the White House beat deals with?
I was just thinking last night about how five years ago when I started this beat, there was so much about the Justice Department that I didn’t know, from the names of officials to acronyms. I can remember doing interviews when I started covering Justice that I would say to the person I was interviewing, ‘Now, most NPR listeners are not familiar with the term habeas corpus, so why don’t you define it for them,’ of course, not knowing myself what habeas corpus meant.
As I start on this White House beat, I think there’s going to be this same kind of learning curve. I was just thinking last night about all the structural things of the White House and learning the names of officials and the things that I’ll have to learn, but I think that’s one of the reasons this is the right choice, having covered Justice for five years, it’s a fantastic experience and I love the beat, but I feel like a good time to try something new.
How do you prepare for your new role? Have you set up your Google Alerts yet?
I actually need to ask for our reference librarian’s help in structuring the right Google Alert, because if I put the Google Alert for Barack Obama, I’m going to get such a tremendous amount of information it’ll be useless. With a Google Alert for Eric Holder, it’s a little bit more digestible, but I’ll have to structure the new ones for the White House beat. But it’s true that I’m going to be relying really heavily upon some of the contacts and sources that I’ve developed over the past five years in starting on this new beat and to a certain extent it’s going to be like drinking from a fire hydrant and I expect that for the first six months to a year, I will be struggling to keep up, and that’s exciting to me.
When I started as a reporter, I felt like there was a long list of mistakes I had to make once in order to make sure that I wouldn’t make them again and then about a year ago when I started filling in as a guest host, there was a whole new list of things that could go wrong, most of which I have now done at least once, and hopefully that means that I will not do them again. So I’m sure that now that I’m starting on a whole new beat at the White House, I’ll have a whole new list of things that could go wrong and mistakes that I might make, and it’s just a matter of hanging in there, forging through them until I’ve sort of exhausted that list and feel comfortable in the routine.
What will you miss most about covering the Justice Department beat?
You know I remember during the U.S. Attorney firing scandal, there were countless hearings into the firings, and at almost every one of those hearings, somebody, whether it was a witness, or a congressman or a senator, would talk about how people who work at the Department of Justice feel a devotion to the Department and a passion for the Department’s mission that other federal government employees don’t feel, and I can’t speak to what other federal government employees do or don’t feel because I’ve never covered another federal department, but I have always been impressed by the way the people at the Department of Justice consider their work to be much more than a job. From national security to civil rights to environment to antitrust, across the board, people at DOJ feel a real devotion to the mission of the Department. John Ashcroft used to say the Department of Justice is the only Department with a value in its name, and there’s really something to that that I will miss.
Do you think there’s a lot more of a political aspect to covering the White House than there is to covering the Justice Department? Obviously at the White House sort of everything is political where at DOJ there’s supposed to be more of a divider line — in just enforcing the law as it’s written, where not everything is thought of politically, sort of what we’re seeing with the handling of the KSM trial.
“Yeah, well one of the major themes of the past five years has been the extent to which politics has or has not improperly affected the decision-making at the Department of Justice. There have been amazing Inspector General reports and hearings about that and I would say that was one of the major themes of the past five years. At the White House, there is a completely different standard as to which politics can influence decision making and that’s going to be a real difference.”
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The White House decided today not to name the Connecticut acting U.S. Attorney as its nominee to lead the state’s U.S. Attorney’s office.
Instead President Obama tapped Stamford, Conn., lawyer David Fein, a partner at Wiggin and Dana, to be the state’s top federal prosecutor. He would replace acting U.S. Attorney Nora Dannehy, who has led the office since Kevin O’Connor resigned in 2006.
Dannehy was among the finalists recommended for Connecticut U.S. Attorney by Nutmeg State Sens. Christopher Dodd (D) and Joseph Lieberman (I) in September.
The senators had also recommended Edgardo Ramos, a partner at the law firm Day Pitney and former federal prosecutor in New York’s Eastern District; and William Tong, an associate with the law firm Finn, Dixon & Herling and a state representative who serves on the legislature’s Judiciary Committee.
Fein, like Dannehy, has prosecutorial experience. He was an Assistant U.S. Attorney for Southern District of New York from 1989 to 1995, serving as deputy chief of the criminal division and counsel to the U.S. Attorney during his tenure at the Manhattan-based office. He also was an associate White House counsel to President Clinton from 1995 to 1996. Read more about Fein here.
Dannehy in September 2008 was named by then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey to investigate the firings of U.S. Attorneys, which many critics charged were inappropriate and politically motivated.
According to the Washington Post, Dannehy obtained documents and conducted interviews of key individuals involved. She questioned former Bush White House senior aide Karl Rove in May. She also talked with former White House political director Sara Taylor and deputy director of political affairs Scott Jennings, The Post said.
In addition, the Post reported she had contacted advisers to former-Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), who improperly called then-New Mexico U.S. Attorney David C. Iglesias, urging him to quickly push through Democratic corruption cases in New Mexico. A month after Iglesias refused the request, he was purged by the Bush administration.
There has been no public announcement about results of the investigation.
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Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, today blasted Attorney General Eric Holder’s defense of the Justice Department’s handling of the alleged Christmas Day bomber.
Holder on Wednesday wrote in a letter to Senate Republican leaders — including Sessions — that he made the decision to bring criminal charges against the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Holder added that his decision is “fully consistent” with the practices and policies of the federal government.
That did not satisfy Sessions. “I think this letter, in terms of accuracy and professionalism, fails,” Sessions said in remarks at a Senate Judiciary Committee business meeting today. “We’re entitled to better than this.”
Conservative senators have been critical of the administration’s decision to charge the alleged bomber criminally rather than put him in military custody for interrogation. Senators have sent numerous letters to Attorney General condemning the decision to treat Abdulmutallab as a civilian. Read our previous reports on three of the letters here, here and here.
Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans yesterday demanded a hearing with Holder. Panel Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said one is already in the works for March.
Here are some passages from Holder’s letter that Sessions criticized:
- Holder: “I made the decision to charge Mr. Abdulmutallab with federal crimes, and to seek his detention in connection with those charges, with the knowledge of, and with no objection from, all other relevant departments of the government.”
- Sessions: “This statement stands in stark contrast to the testimony of Homeland Security Secretary [Janet] Napolitano, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center Michael Leiter, and FBI Director Robert Mueller, all of whom said they were not consulted on the decision. And in fact, it does appear from the letter, if you read it carefully, that the decision was made before they were notified. It had already been made and a lawyer had already been appointed and he’d clammed up.”
- Holder: “Since the September 11,2022 attacks, the practice of the U.S. government, followed by prior and current Administrations without a single exception, has been to arrest and detain under federal criminal law all terrorist suspects who are apprehended inside the United States. The prior Administration adopted policies expressly endorsing this approach.” He added: “In fact, two (and only two) persons apprehended in this country in recent times have been held under the law of war. Jose Padilla was arrested on a federal material witness warrant in 2002, and was transferred to law of war custody approximately one month later, after his court-appointed counsel moved to vacate the warrant. Ali Saleh Kahlah Al-Marri was also initially arrested on a material witness warrant in 2001, was indicted on federal criminal charges (unrelated to terrorism) in 2002, and then transferred to law of war custody approximately eighteen months later.”
- Sessions: “These two statements cannot be reconciled.”
- Holder: “In Mr. Padilla’s case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit found that the President did not have the authority to detain him under the law of war.”
- Sessions: “He cites the holding of the reversed Second Circuit decision—that the President lacks the authority to detain a U.S. citizen as an enemy combatant on U.S. soil—without mentioning that the Supreme Court ruled one year later, in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, that ‘[t]here is no bar to this Nation’s holding one of its own citizens as an enemy combatant… A citizen, no less than an alien, can be part of or supporting forces hostile to the United States or coalition partners’ and ‘engaged in an armed conflict against the United States,’ … ’such a citizen, if released, would pose the same threat of returning to the front during the ongoing conflict’.”
- Holder: “[W]hen the Bush administration attempted to deny Jose Padilla access to an attorney, a federal judge in New York rejected that position, ruling that Padilla must be allowed to meet with his lawyer. Notably, the judge in that case was Michael Mukasey, my predecessor as Attorney General. In fact, there is no court-approved system currently in place in which suspected terrorists captured inside the United States can be detained and held without access to an attorney; nor is there any known mechanism to persuade an uncooperative individual to talk to the government that has been proven more effective than the criminal justice system.”
- Sessions: “That is a misrepresentation of the situation. He never acknowledges that he is comparing apples to oranges. Judge Mukasey didn’t grant Padilla a lawyer as part of his arrest or interrogation. He granted Padilla a lawyer much later when he was filing a petition for habeas corpus to challenge the legality of his detention, and eventually he was appointed one. But not the night of his arrest.”
- Holder: “Richard Reid, a British citizen, was arrested in December 2001 for attempting to ignite a shoe bomb while on a flight from Paris to Miami carrying 184 passengers and 14 crewmembers. He was advised of his right to remain silent and to consult with an attorney within five minutes of being removed from the aircraft … pled guilty in October 2002, and is now serving a life sentence in federal prison.”
- Sessions: “He cites how Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, was charged in the civilian criminal system, but fails to acknowledge that there was no military commission system in place at the time of his arrest in December 2001. The military commission system wasn’t brought under congressional authorization until 2006, when we passed legislation to do that.”
- Holder: “[T]he Bush Administration used the criminal justice system to convict more than 300 individuals on terrorism-related charges.”
- Sessions: “Since May 2009, [Republican] Senator [Jon] Kyl [of Arizona] and I have been asking the Attorney General to explain the basis for this most questionable claim. To date, we have received no response to our repeated requests … for this information. If this figure is valid, why is the Attorney General not willing to explain it?”
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