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Obama’s Attorney General (for now)

Eric Holder botches the war on terror.

Feb 15, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 21 • By JENNIFER RUBIN
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Attorney General Eric Holder has been the Obama administration’s point man in revising the nation’s approach to terrorism. Holder said last summer that it was his decision to reinvestigate CIA operatives who had employed enhanced interrogation techniques during the Bush administration, although these individuals had been cleared by the Justice Department’s career prosecutors. It was Holder’s call, the president said, to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) in a New York courtroom rather than before a military tribunal. And Holder, in a letter this past week, took responsibility for the decision to mirandize the Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and classify him as an ordinary criminal defendant rather than an enemy combatant. 

Obama’s Attorney General (for now)

There is doubt whether Holder was acting independently in all these critical decisions, and whether the White House would not, at the very least, have weighed in. Either way, Holder has become the president’s Achilles’ heel, a lightning rod for critics and a headache for supporters.

Defending his KSM decision, Holder appeared ill-prepared in Senate testimony last November. A fumbling attorney general was stumped by Senator Lindsey Graham’s questions probing what other enemy combatant seized on foreign soil had been tried in federal court. The answer, after a painful pause, was supplied by Graham: There has never been one. Nor did Holder rule out mirandizing Osama bin Laden if he were captured.

It is not merely poor preparation that has plagued the nation’s top law enforcement figure. As New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and a bipartisan parade of senators came forward objecting to KSM’s trial in Manhattan, it became evident Holder had failed to consult with city officials before announcing the decision. New York Police Department chief Ray Kelly revealed, “There was no consultation .  .  . with the police department. That decision was made. We were informed.” Bloomberg then blasted away: “It would be great if the federal government could find a site that didn’t cost a billion dollars. .  .  . It’s going to cost an awful lot of money and disturb an awful lot of people. .  .  . Yeah, and I mean—the suggestion of a military base is probably a reasonably good one.” Some 18 senators then joined in proposing legislation to block a civilian trial. 

Holder, in short, utterly failed to build support for what he bragged would be the “trial of the century.” Even liberal pundits were left sputtering that Holder had botched what was to be the showcase for the criminal justice approach to fighting terrorism. 

Holder is now on the hot seat for his decision to mirandize Abdulmutallab, indict him in federal court, and permit him to remain silent for weeks. One by one, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair testified that this was not their call and that they had not been consulted by Holder before Abdulmutallab’s legal status was determined. 

Meanwhile Holder stonewalled. He refused to answer multiple letters from lawmakers about the decision to mirandize Abdulmutallab or the Justice Department’s policy for handling captured terrorists. Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions, the ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, released a statement last week decrying Holder’s lack of responsiveness. “We have been asking the Attorney General questions on behalf of the American people. He has not simply shut us out; he has also shut out the public.” And in a February 3 speech, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell articulated the growing unease over allowing a “law enforcement mentality [to] intrude into military and intelligence operations” and over Holder’s reticence to explain the administration’s policies to Congress. 

That same day, in a letter to McCon-nell, Holder finally pulled back the curtain a bit. He defended his handling of the Christmas Day bomber as consistent with “the long-established and publicly known policies and practices of the Department of Justice.” He pronounced himself confident “that the decision to address Mr. Abdulmutallab’s actions through our criminal justice system has not, and will not, compromise our ability to obtain information needed to detect and prevent future attacks.” He then asserted:

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