Commentary Magazine


Holder Under the Bus?

Andy McCarthy and I have both been looking at Attorney General Eric Holder’s latest effort to defend in a letter to Mitch McConnell the administration’s handling of the Christmas Day bomber. McCarthy sums it up:

The fundamental problem with the attorney general’s line of argument is that it unfolds as though there were no war and no president. Abdulmutallab, Holder believes, is just like any other person arrested in the United States: When an arrest happens, government officials automatically employ “long-established and publicly known policies and practices.” It does not matter who sent the person or what he was arrested trying to do. Miranda warnings are given, lawyers are interposed, charges are filed, and trials are conducted. Even if the nation is at war, we don’t inquire into whether the arrested person is an operative dispatched here by hostile forces to commit mass murder.

Aside from the sloppy legal work by Holder (including citing cases that have been since overturned by the Supreme Court), it is curious to see that the Obami are now retreating to the defense that “Bush did the same thing” (ignoring the instances in which Bush designated terrorists as enemy combatants). None of this seems to be working to shore up support for the criminal-justice model, which the Obami have insisted on employing, in part because the legal arguments are weak (e.g., disregarding the military-commission system, now in place to handle these cases) and in part because neither the public nor members of Obama’s own party think it makes sense to try KSM in a civilian court, Mirandize a terrorist, or ship Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. Joining the chorus of other mainstream critics of the Obama approach, Stuart Taylor calls Holder’s decisions to Mirandize the Christmas Day bomber and to try KSM in a civilian court “two glaring mistakes” that require a serious course correction by Obama in his anti-terrorism policies.

In a piece in the New Yorker, which aptly describes the gathering storm of opposition, Holder doubles-down (“What we did is totally consistent with what has happened in every similar case”) and lashes out at former Vice President Dick Cheney (“On some level, and I’m not sure why, he lacks confidence in the American system of justice”). But Holder seems to be on thin ice and the White House might now view him as a liability. The New Yorker quotes a source close to the White House:

“The White House doesn’t trust his judgment, and doesn’t think he’s mindful enough of all the things he should be,” such as protecting the President from political fallout. “They think he wants to protect his own image, and to make himself untouchable politically, the way Reno did, by doing the righteous thing.”

Even more ominous for Holder: Rahm Emanuel is making it clear to all those concerned that he disagreed with a string of highly controversial and politically disastrous decisions by Holder. We learn: “Emanuel adamantly opposed a number of Holder’s decisions, including one that widened the scope of a special counsel who had begun investigating the C.I.A.’s interrogation program. Bush had appointed the special counsel, John Durham, to assess whether the C.I.A. had obstructed justice when it destroyed videotapes documenting waterboarding sessions.” And then there is the KSM trial:

At the White House, Emanuel, who is not a lawyer, opposed Holder’s position on the 9/11 cases. He argued that the Administration needed the support of key Republicans to help close Guantánamo, and that a fight over Khalid Sheikh Mohammed could alienate them. “There was a lot of drama,” the informed source said. . . .  “Rahm felt very, very strongly that it was a mistake to prosecute the 9/11 people in the federal courts, and that it was picking an unnecessary fight with the military-commission people,” the informed source said. “Rahm had a good relationship with [Sen. Lindsay] Graham, and believed Graham when he said that if you don’t prosecute these people in military commissions I won’t support the closing of Guantánamo. . . . Rahm said, ‘If we don’t have Graham, we can’t close Guantánamo, and it’s on Eric!’ ”

Interesting that Emanuel and his spinners are now distancing the White House from their attorney general. One wonders where Obama stands in this drama. Isn’t he, after all, the commander in chief? Either the president was content to go along with Holder’s decisions until they went south or he subcontracted, with no oversight, some of the most critical decisions of his presidency to a lawyer who is prone to making the kind of mistakes a “first-year lawyer would get fired for.

Either way, Obama now must suffer the results of Holder’s ill-advised decisions. There will be much speculation, given Emanuel’s comments, as to whether the White House is getting ready to throw Holder under that proverbial bus. Now, as the Democrats join the Republicans to block the KSM trial and to deny funds for moving detainees to Illinois, it would be as good a time as any.

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