Posts Tagged ‘National Security’
Friday, July 23rd, 2010

Newsweek Managing Editor Daniel Klaidman is among a handful of journalists who has covered Eric Holder so long that his access to the Attorney General can only be described as extraordinary.

It’s not unheard of for the Attorney General to call Klaidman directly to talk about what’s on his mind. (Shortly after he took the job, in fact, Holder called Klaidman — only to be put on hold for two minutes when the reporter’s assistant didn’t realize who was on the line.)

Now, the former Legal Times senior reporter is writing his first book, in which Holder is set to be a key figure.

The book, temporarily named “The Arc of Justice: Obama, Terrorism, and the Struggle over American Ideals,” is slated for publication by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the spring of 2012. It will probe the Obama administration’s shaping of national security policy and counter-terrorism efforts in the wake of the controversies of the George W. Bush administration.

Dan Klaidman, managing editor of Newsweek, is working on a book about the terrorism policies of the Obama administration (Newsweek).

“The Justice Department is obviously a significant part of this story, and Holder therefore is an important character,” Klaidman said in an interview. “But I’m as focused on other advisers to the president as I am on the Attorney General.”

Klaidman said the book “will chronicle in narrative fashion the goals and desire of rolling back some of the controversial policies from the previous administration and how big a challenge that is, how really difficult that turns out to be for a variety of reasons.”

Holder is aware he is working on the book but has not yet sat down for a formal interview, Klaidman said.

Klaidman began covering Holder for Legal Times in the late 1980s, when Holder was a District of Columbia Superior Court judge. He continued to follow Holder during his tenure from 1993 to 1997 as U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia and when he served as Deputy Attorney General from 1997 until the end of the Clinton administration.

Klaidman joined Newsweek in 1996. He was a key member of the investigative team whose coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal earned a National Magazine Award. He also served as Jerusalem bureau chief, was named Washington Bureau Chief in 2000 and managing editor in 2006.

In July 2009, after a long interview at Holder’s kitchen table in his Northwest Washington home,  Klaidman broke the news that Holder was leaning towards appointing a special prosecutor to conduct a preliminary review of whether CIA officers had gone beyond the guidance from the Office of Legal Counsel when interrogating terrorism suspects. (Last month, Holder told law students that Assistant U.S. Attorney John Durham of the District of Connecticut is close to a decision). Holder gave Klaidman and Newsweek another interview in December.

Obama, like Holder, is “trying to navigate between the left and the right here to try to come up with sensible, prudent, tough and just policies in an extremely difficult, extremely polarized environment, so I want to try to tell that story,” Klaidman said.

Holder and the Obama administration’s handling national security issues hasn’t gone as planned. The administration has yet to make a final decision on where to hold the trial of alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed . Holder announced last year that KSM would face a civilian trial in New York City, but the plan faced significant political opposition.

The administration also took flack for reading Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called “underpants bomber,” his Miranda rights and placing him in the civilian justice system. Efforts to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay also have stalled because of congressional opposition. Those issues have caused strain between the White House, most notably Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, and the Justice Department.

Klaidman said there’s no question that Justice Department officials are frustrated with the extent to which politics have hampered their efforts.

“These are people who’ve obviously served in the government before and are not Pollyanna-ish about the impact that politics has in carrying out your agenda,” Klaidman said. “But on the other hand, I think that there’s a sense that things have gotten to a point where it’s just very frustrating, very difficult to do the things that people in this administration think are the right things to do.”

Holder Wants To ‘Stick It Out’ For At Least First Term

While some D.C. observers previously thought Holder’s job was in peril, Klaidman said he gets the impression that the Attorney General “certainly wants to stick it out” for the first term of the Obama administration.

“These jobs are huge grinds. Whether or not he wants to serve out two terms, I don’t know. But I wouldn’t be surprised that, assuming Barack Obama is re-elected, he goes back into private practice or does something else. On the other hand, I’ve been surprised before. It may be that he would serve a second term if he had the opportunity,” Klaidman said.

Ultimately, said Klaidman, the Attorney General and his top national security officials in the Justice Department are pragmatic.

“I think that he’ll bide his time and look for him moments. I think he understands that the perfect is the enemy of the good and hope to get as much as he can,” Klaidman said.

Although Holder expected to be dealing with terrorism and national security issues for much of his tenure as Attorney General, he was still surprised by how much of his time was dominated by those issues, Klaidman said. Holder told his aides that something like 70 percent of his time is spent on national security, according to Klaidman.

While Holder has faced criticism from some at the White House for being too independent — one administration official told Klaidman for a previous piece that Holder had “overlearned the lessons of Marc Rich” — he has also taken criticism from some for being too close to the President.

“I think he’s got a good relationship with the President; he’s got some good chemistry. Eric Holder is not as close to this President, or as close as might be troubling, in terms of how close relationships between AGs and Presidents have been,” Klaidman said.

Historically, former Attorneys General have been some of the president’s closest political advisers, even running their political campaigns, Klaidman said.

“That’s when you have to start worrying… when an Attorney General has a dual role [of] watching out for the president’s politics on a daily basis while trying to carry out the responsibilities of being the country’s top lawyer, where you have to exercise a certain amount of independence,” Klaidman said.

Monday, July 5th, 2010

Attorney General Eric Holder’s late-night national security vigil was described in the Washington Post’s vivid profile of the round-the-clock efforts of President Barack Obama’s national security team.

Among the other top officials profiled were: CIA Director Leon Panetta; national security adviser James L. Jones; Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates; Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano; National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter; and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen.

The article captures Holder as he poured through national security documents in his kitchen shortly after midnight:

Holder now sits down at the kitchen table. He spreads legal papers across the round, granite surface and puts his legs up. At his Justice Department office, he plays Tupac and Jay-Z. Not here. He keeps it so quiet, he notices when the refrigerator motor clicks off.

All day, voices bombard Holder, advocating discordant legal remedies for terrorism. “So much of national security has been politicized,” he says. “There’s a lot of noise.”

Only at night can he contemplate: “What’s best for the case? What’s best for the nation?” Here, he makes his most difficult, controversial decisions. At 1 a.m., eating Chips Ahoys, Holder determined that 9/11 detainees should stand trial in New York and that terrorist suspects should be tried in federal court. The conflicting demands filled him with tension: “That tension to be independent, yet part of the administration.”

Of all the nighthawks, Holder occupies the loneliest perch. He is the president’s friend, yet as the government’s chief law enforcer, he has to stand aloof. White House aides roll their eyes behind his back; Hill critics roll their eyes to his face. His predecessors understand: “There’s an AG’s club. Former Republican AGs call and say, ‘Hang in there!’ “

To read the rest of the article click here.

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

Amy Jeffress (left), a counselor to Attorney General Eric Holder focusing on national security, will take up a new position in London later this summer (file photo by Ryan J. Reilly / Main Justice).

The top national security counselor to Attorney General Eric Holder has been named the Department of Justice Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in London, a Justice Department spokesman confirmed to Main Justice.

Amy Jeffress, who joined the Attorney General’s office the day after President Barack Obama was inaugurated, will make the move overseas later this summer, Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller said. He said a replacement for Jeffress has not yet been named.

“It has been a great privilege to work for the Attorney General on these important issues, but the chance to continue working for the department in this unique position in London is a rare opportunity that I could not pass up,” Jeffress said in a statement.

The departure of Jeffress comes as the Obama administration’s plan to close Guantanamo Bay has slowed to a near halt and national security matters have proven to be among the most difficult issues Holder has confronted during his tenure.

In her capacity as Holder’s counselor, Jeffress set up three inter-agency task forces to review the cases of Guantanamo Bay detainees. The task force finalized a report on the detainees in January, and the report was sent to Congress in late May.

Jeffress told The New Yorker that the challenge of figuring out what to do with the detainees was much greater than expected. “There was no file for each detainee,” she said. The Bush administration clearly “hadn’t planned on prosecuting anyone. Instead, it was ‘Let’s take a shortcut and put them in Guantanamo’.”

Jeffress previously served as chief of the National Security Section of the U.S. Attorney’s office for the District of Columbia, where she oversaw terrorism and espionage investigations and prosecutions. Between 1996 and 2009, she served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the D.C. U.S. Attorney’s office. She served as counsel to the Deputy Attorney General from 1994 to 1996 and as counsel in the Department of Defense Office of General Counsel in 1993 and 1994. She clerked for the U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell from 1992 to 1993. She received her law degree from Yale Law School and her bachelor’s degree from Williams College. She also earned a master’s degree in political science from the Free University of Berlin.

Jeffress comes from a family of lawyers: her father is white-collar lawyer William Jeffress, a partner at Baker Botts LLP who was part of the legal team that represented Lewis “Scooter” Libby. Her brother Jonathan Jeffress is a public defender in the D.C. Public Defender’s office.

This post has been updated.

Saturday, February 27th, 2010

President Barack Obama on Saturday signed into law legislation that would temporarily extend three controversial provisions of the Patriot Act that had been set to expire.

The House took final congressional action on the measure on Thursday, voting 315-97 to keep in place the Patriot Act’s “lone wolf,” business records and “roving wiretap” powers until Feb. 28, 2011. The Senate had passed the bill by voice vote Wednesday night.

Here is a summary of the provisions that were due to expire:

  • Lone wolf: Allows the government to track a target without any discernible affiliation to a foreign power, such as an international terrorist group. The provision applies only to non-U.S. persons. The government has never used it.
  • Business records: Allows investigators to compel third parties, including financial services and travel and telephone companies, to provide access to a suspect’s records without the suspect’s knowledge.
  • Roving wiretaps: Allows the government to monitor phone lines or Internet accounts that a terrorism suspect may be using, regardless of whether others who are not suspects also regularly use them. The government must provide the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court with specific information suggesting a suspect is purposely switching means of communication to evade detection.
Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

Attorney General Eric HolderAttorney General Eric Holder said Monday that the Justice Department has to remain independent of improper influences, but that in national security cases like the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed the Attorney General should work with the White House.

In response to a question from Main Justice  about the politics surrounding the KSM trial, Holder said that because of the subject matter, it was necessary to coordinate with the White House.

“It’s a matter of national security, so in dealing with that and making the ultimate decision, I think it’s appropriate for the Attorney General to be interacting with the national security team at the White House, and discussing it with the President,” said Holder.

Holder did not say whether the White House was advising him on where the trial location or the potential political fallout.

“The Justice Department has to remain independent,” said Holder. “It’s a different thing when you’re talking about national security where I think a more wide ranging discussion is appropriate involving our national security partners in addition to the national security team at the White House.”

Those comments are in line with a May 11 memo sent to all U.S. Attorneys and the leaders of Justice Department components on the issue of communications between the White House and the Justice Department. Holder wrote that Justice “will advise the White House concerning pending or contemplated criminal or civil investigations or cases when - but only when - it is important for the performance of the President’s duties and appropriate from a law enforcement perspective.”

The limitations laid out in that memo are meant to avoid politicized communications from taking place, but do not extend to national security matters, including counter-terrorism and counter-espionage issues.

“[T]hese guidelines and procedures are not intended to wall off the Department from legitimate communication,” Holder wrote. “We welcome criticism and advice. What these procedures are intended to do is to route communications to the proper officials so they can be adequately reviewed and considered, free from either the reality or the appearance of improper influence.”

Friday, February 19th, 2010

The Justice Department’s ever more complex national security and financial crime caseload has been a boon for an often-overlooked cog in the federal legal system: the expert witness.

The department has asked Congress for more than $250 million in fiscal 2011, anticipating a spike in demand for witnesses who can distill eye-glazing arcana into something more or less accessible to the average person (or judge), according to budget documents recently posted on the department’s Web site. The funds would also be used pay the fees of physicians and psychiatrists who examine criminal defendants to determine their fitness to stand trial.

The overall funding level for witness fees and protection has remained flat, at about $168 million, since fiscal 2006, with the department using direct appropriations and carry-over balances to cover rising costs. Those carry-over balances are approaching zero, and the department says it needs an additional $92 million to pay experts on range of topics, from spent nuclear fuel to mortgage lending.

About 70 percent of the expert witnesses used by the department in 2009 were physicians, psychiatrists, appraisers, engineers or economists, according to the department. Their rates vary, and compensation is negotiated between the expert witness and the Justice Department lawyer who selects them.

Government lawyers must interview at least three potential expert witnesses before making a selection; there are no caps on costs or required minimums, a Justice official said. Each Justice Department component and U.S. Attorney’s office has a designated official who approves expert witness contracts.

In its budget justification, the department said it expects the need for expert witnesses to grow in the areas of national security and fraud arising from the financial industry bailout and stimulus programs. Also cited are legal developments that could cost the federal government billions of dollars, including a judge’s November ruling that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was responsible for some of the flooding during Hurricane Katrina.

“Because of that decision, the federal government may be made liable for billions of dollars in damage claims; therefore, a significant amount of expert witness resources will be needed to accurately and fairly access the thousands of claims filed in this case,” the budget document states.

Expert witnesses are also playing a key role in assessing the value of tribal lands, as the Civil Division lawyers defend the Interior Department in dozens of lawsuits alleging it mismanaged Indian funds held in trust. And the department said more expert witnesses will be needed to give testimony in trials over the storage of spent nuclear fuels, and to help defend against a “staggering increase” in claims in the Vaccine Program.

In the U.S. Attorneys’ offices, demand for expert witnesses is at least as high, particularly in mortgage fraud and tax shelter cases. The offices spent $47 million on expert witnesses in fiscal 2009, as opposed to $22 million in fiscal 2005 — a 114 percent increase, according to department figures.

Expert services companies are taking note. Ken Yormark, managing director at LECG Corp. and head of the forensic accounting practice in New York, said the company is working to get on the federal government’s vendor list.

Still, greater demand for expert witnesses in the public sector inevitably leads to greater demand for expert witnesses in the private sector. Yormark said LECG, whose clients are typically from the latter, is ”definitely seeing more activity in the market place.”

“When the bell rings and companies need assistance, they have to call on experts like us to help them,” Yormark said.

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Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

NPR's Justice Department coorespondent, Ari Shapiro (right of Attorney General Eric Holder) will begin covering the White House in the coming weeks (DOJ photo).

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.

Ari Shapiro (NPR photo).

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.”

Monday, February 1st, 2010

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said defense and intelligence officials had the opportunity to object to a decision to criminally indict alleged Christmas Day airplane bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. But no one registered objections at a Jan. 5 meeting with President Barack Obama, Gibbs said.

Robert Gibbs (White House)

“I will say that anybody that wanted or needed to register their concern, the notion that somehow a forum wasn’t readily available to register anybody’s concern doesn’t certainly comport the way I understand events, having been in the room watching those present have an opportunity to ask questions about those procedures,” Gibbs said at a White House news briefing Monday.

The meeting was held in the White House Situation Room to review the intelligence failures that led to the accused al-Qaeda associate being allowed to board a Detroit-bound commercial airliner with explosives in his underwear.  Attorney General Eric Holder, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, CIA Director Leon Panetta, and Director of the National Counterterrorism Center Michael E. Leiter attended, Gibbs said.

Gibbs’s remarks lent support to a Los Angeles Times article today that said CIA officials were at the table with DOJ officials before a decision was made to read Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights, a move that has sparked fierce criticism from Republicans and some administration officials, including Blair.

Asked if the administration had ruled out treating Abdulmutallab as an “enemy combatant” without the protections accorded criminal defendants, Gibbs said: “I think that very experienced interrogators at the FBI made decisions about interrogation, and the Department of Justice made determinations to seek an indictment, and the President believes that’s the appropriate place.”

Gibbs did note there is precedent for reversing such decisions, citing the Jose Padilla and Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri cases.

After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the government charged U.S. citizen Jose Padilla, who was believed to have trained with al-Qaeda, with terrorism offenses. Later Padilla was sent to military custody for three and a half years. In 2007, Padilla was convicted in federal court in Miami of conspiracy to kill and sentenced to prison. Al-Marri likewise was arrested after the 9/11 attacks on suspicion of working with al-Qaeda, then later held in military custody. Last year he pleaded guilty in federal court in Illinois to supporting al-Qaeda.

Pressed whether the administration believed there’s “no more intelligence to be gained” from Abdulmutallab, Gibbs was more cryptic. “The White House is satisfied that the process of gaining that intelligence is working,” he said.

Gibbs also said Monday that “no decision” has been made to transfer the trial of accused 9/11 conspirator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others out of New York City, despite news reports to the contrary last week. “[D]ecisions that are being reported as having been made have not been made,” Gibbs said.

Monday, February 1st, 2010

Officials from the Central Intelligence Agency participated in a government-wide discussion on Christmas Day about how to handle a Nigerian national who allegedly attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound passenger airliner, the Los Angeles Times reported today, citing unnamed sources.

The decision to advise Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab of his Miranda rights rather than put him in military custody for interrogation was made after “hastily called teleconferences” between representatives of the Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, State Department and CIA, the newspaper said. By that time, the suspect had stopped talking with law enforcement, the Times said.

The Times story appeared as the Justice Department found itself increasingly on the defensive over the matter.

Republicans say Abdulmutallab should have been taken into military custody for questioning by intelligence officials. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, a Barack Obama appointee, has also criticized the decision to charge Abdulmutallab criminally. The issue has become politically sensitive for Holder, with  GOP senators demanding he come to Capitol Hill to explain his role. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the GOP’s No. 3 leader in the Senate, even suggested Sunday that Holder consider resigning over the incident.

The Times story appeared to push back against the criticism by suggesting the CIA had been at the table all along.

It still isn’t clear who precisely authorized treating the accused al-Qaeda operative as a criminal suspect with rights against self-incrimination. No one in the government has come forward publicly yet to explain how the decision was made, though White House spokesman Robert Gibbs on Jan. 21 said he believed that decision ultimately lay with Attorney General Eric Holder.

Citing unnamed sources, the LA Times said after Northwest Airlines Flight 253 landed in Detroit on Christmas Day, Abdulmutallab was taken to a hospital for treatment for burns allegedly sustained after he tried to ignite explosives in his underwear.

He was question by two experienced counter-terrorism agents who have “been around a long time and have traveled internationally,” an anonymous source told the newspaper.

The questioning lasted just shy of an hour. The agents did not immediately tell him he had the right to remain silent or let his words be used against him at trial, citing an exemption that allows law enforcement officials to pose questions if they believe another crime is about to be committed. The suspect gave information that suggested other terrorism plots were in the works, the newspaper said.

But then, doctors said they needed to sedate Abdulmutallab to treat his injuries. By the time Abdulmutallab was available again for questioning, he had clammed up. The decision was made to read him his Miranda rights. The Obama administration’s policy is to try terrorism suspects arrested on U.S. soil in federal courts rather than in military commissions.

Department of Justice spokesman Matthew Miller last week released a list of other successful terrorism prosecutions, including that of Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen and al-Qaeda operative who was arrested after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and convicted in the Eastern District of Virginia.

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

A Senate Republican leader suggested Sunday that Attorney General Eric Holder should consider resigning over the decision to criminally charge alleged Christmas Day airplane bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab rather than put him in military custody for interrogation.

Holder is “doing a better job of interrogating CIA employees than he is of interrogating terrorists, and he’s not making a distinction between enemy combatants and terrorists flying into Detroit trying to blow up planes and American citizens who are committing a crime,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said in an appearance on Fox News Sunday.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.)

“He needs to go to Congress and say I made that decision, and here’s why. And based on that perhaps he should step down,” Alexander said, according to The Hill.

Alexander is chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, the No. 3 GOP leadership position in the Senate. He is among the least partisan of Senate Republicans, according to an analysis by Congressional Quarterly, which found the Tennessee Republican was among those GOP senators who voted most often with President Barack Obama.

Last week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and four top Republican committee members wrote in a letter to Holder that the decision to have FBI agents instead of intelligence officials interrogate Abdulmutallab was “hasty. The Nigerian national and alleged al-Qaeda-linked operative is accused of trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner with explosives hidden in his underwear.

Holder has been under fire from Republicans for a number of national security decisions, including his decision in August to appoint a special prosecutor, John Durham, to investigate whether CIA employees and contractors broke anti-torture laws during the Bush administration.

The decision to have Durham look into the matter came on heels of the DOJ Office of Professional Responsibility recommendation that urged Holder to reopen nearly a dozen alleged CIA prisoner-abuse cases.

Holder also backed release of Bush-era Office of Legal Counsel memos in April that justified brutal interrogation techniques that critics consider torture. The White House at the time fretted over the political implications of releasing the memos but ultimately decided the matter was the Attorney General’s call.

And on Friday, the Obama administration reversed Holder’s November decision to hold a trial in Lower Manhattan of self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other alleged plotters of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The decision to move the trial came after a bipartisan outpouring of criticism about the security costs and disruptions of holding a trial in New York.