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Holder on Trial

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Jane Mayer’s feature on Attorney General Eric Holder is just up at the New Yorker website. She presents Holder as at the center of the controversy surrounding counterterrorism policy, under attack from Republicans close to Dick Cheney and relating with difficulty to a White House intent on appeasing Republican critics. Here’s a sample:

After the Christmas Day incident, conservative pundits lambasted the Justice Department’s handling of Abdulmutallab, who had concealed in his underwear a bomb that ignited but failed to explode. When the plane landed, Abdulmutallab was taken to a hospital for treatment; at Holder’s directive, he was arrested as a criminal suspect. (The F.B.I., the C.I.A., and the Pentagon signed off on Holder’s decision.) F.B.I. agents questioned Abdulmutallab for some fifty minutes, under what is known as the “public-safety exception” to the right to remain silent. He divulged time-sensitive intelligence: he had been trained in Yemen, by affiliates of Al Qaeda, and had obtained explosives from them. After he received medical treatment, a Justice Department source said, he started to “act like a jihadi and recite the Koran.” He stopped coöperating and demanded a lawyer, at which point authorities read him his rights. On “Inside Washington,” Charles Krauthammer declared that it was “almost criminal” that Holder had allowed Abdulmutallab access to an attorney. Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, appeared on ABC, saying, “Why in God’s name would you stop questioning a terrorist?”

But Mayer’s best sleuthing goes to the tension between Holder and the White House over decisions about trials of terrorists:

Emanuel viewed many of the legal problems that Craig and Holder were immersed in as distractions. “When Guantánamo walked in the door, Rahm walked out,” the informed source said. Holder and Emanuel had been collegial since their Clinton Administration days. Holder’s wife, Sharon Malone, an obstetrician, had delivered one of Emanuel’s children. But 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. Holder authorized Durham to determine whether the agency’s abuse of detainees had itself violated laws. Emanuel worried that such investigations would alienate the intelligence community. But Holder, who had studied law at Columbia with Telford Taylor, the chief American prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials, was profoundly upset after seeing classified documents explicitly describing C.I.A. prisoner abuse. The United Nations Convention Against Torture requires the U.S. to investigate credible torture allegations. Holder felt that, as the top law-enforcement officer in the U.S., he had to do something.

Emanuel couldn’t complain directly to Holder without violating strictures against political interference in prosecutorial decisions. But he conveyed his unhappiness to Holder indirectly, two sources said. Emanuel demanded, “Didn’t he get the memo that we’re not re-litigating the past?”

What was Emanuel’s aim in this process? It seems he wanted to make a number of Republicans happy, in particular South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham. According to one of Mayer’s sources, “Rahm had a good relationship with 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!’ ”

The article is essential reading for those who want to understand why the Holder Justice Department has shut down all efforts to secure accountability for serious crimes committed during the war on terror, potentially including homicides. Mayer gives us a step-by-step explanation of the process and the roles played by each. It leaves little doubt that the man in charge is Rahm Emanuel.

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