Holder wins two, loses one

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Barack Obama has appointed a career Justice Department lawyer to lead the nation’s counterterrorism center and approved a new anti-terror strategy. Both are seen as good for Attorney General Eric Holder.

The president has appointed Matthew Olsen to head the anti-terrorism center. Olsen is a former deputy to Holder and an 18-year Justice Department official. He replaces Michael Leiter. The White House made the announcement July 1.

Olsen spent 16 years at the Justice Department and was then given the task by Holder of studying the records of jihadis at Guantanamo Bay. He was also appointed to oversee legal matters at the nation’s chief electronic-intelligence group, the National Security Agency. During the Bush administration, the agency was widely criticized by Democrats for monitoring international communications between U.S. residents and overseas people linked to jihadi groups. Olsen is also an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

The president’s new anti-terror strategy is a political victory for Attorney General Eric Holder, who has waged a bureaucratic struggle to ensure lawyers and civil courts — not soldiers or intelligence agents — play the leading role in defending the nation from overseas jihadis.

“They’re trying to make their views have priority over the war-fighters,” said Hans Von Spakovsky, a senior Justice Department official during George W. Bush’s administration. “There shouldn’t be any role” for the department in fighting overseas jihadis, said Von Spakovsky. “It is something the Department of Defense should be fighting.”

Holder announced June 30th that he was halting investigations of intelligence-agency employees involved in 99 interrogations. (Holder curbs his CIA investigation)

The announcement was applauded by then-CIA chief Leon Panetta, and by the GOP chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers. However, Holder’s announcement was included in a lengthy statement that also said he was proceeding with investigations of U.S. government employees linked to the death of two Iraqis.

Holder’s overall agenda was advanced when Obama signed the new “National Strategy for Counterterrorism” on June 28.

The strategy’s text narrowly defines the terror threat as the Al Qaeda organization and its allies, it downplays the military’s leading role in combating overseas jihadis, and it gives lawyers a leading role fighting Al Qaeda.

The new strategy’s first principle, says the document, is adherence to “core values,” which is described as “respecting human rights, fostering good governance, respecting privacy and civil liberties, committing to security and transparency, and upholding the rule of law.”

The strategy’s emphasis on rights gives the leading role to lawyers, even when the U.S. is threatened by jihadis who operate in foreign countries. “When other countries are unwilling or unable to take action against terrorists within their borders who threaten the United States, they should be taken into U.S. custody and tried in U.S. civilian courts or by military commission,” says the document.

The new strategy does not address Islam’s jihad theology, which says Muslims are rewarded in an afterlife if they spread Islam by violence, and which is unaffected by U.S. legal arguments.

The military’s role is downplayed through the strategy, getting only seven mentions. But “legal” and “justice” get 15 mentions. “The successful prosecution of terrorists will continue to play a critical role in U.S. [counterterrorism] efforts, enabling the United States to disrupt and deter terrorist activity; gather intelligence from those lawfully held in U.S. custody; dismantle organizations by incarcerating key members and operatives; and gain a measure of justice by prosecuting those who have plotted or participated in attacks,” said the strategy.

The claim by Holder that civil law is the foundation of the nation’s defense against jihadis “is truly ludicrous assertion,” said Bradford Berenson, a lawyer in the Bush administration. (National security experts blast Holder’s claim that lawyers are America’s most effective terror fighting weapon)

“Bin Laden was under indictment for years” before he directed the 9/11 atrocity, said Berenson, now a partner at the D.C. offices of Sidley Austin.

However, Holder and his allied lawyers have already sharply reduced the U.S. government’s ability to interrogate captured jihadis, said Debra Burlingame, an advocate who opposed Holder’s investigation of the CIA interrogators. Because President Obama dismantled the interrogation rules established by Bush, “we have no interrogation policy in place,” she said.

Without those Bush rules, which were widely criticized by Democrats, including presidential candidate Obama, jihadis are being killed by drones rather than being captured and interrogated for information, she said. “They’re killing as many as they can, but we don’t get intelligence from rubble,” she said.

At the June 29 press conference, Obama provided an ambiguous answer when he was asked if his restrictive interrogation rules were pushing U.S. soldiers to kill jihadis.

“My top priority in each and every one of these situations is to make sure that we’re apprehending those who would attack the United States; that we are getting all the intelligence that we can out of these individuals, in a way that’s consistent with due process of law; and that we try them, we prosecute them, in a way that’s consistent with rule of law,” Obama replied.

But on May 1, U.S. commandos shot Al Qaeda’s founder, Osama bin Laden, at a distance of several feet, and did not bring him back to Guantanamo Bay for interrogation and a military courtroom.