Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Eric Holder is controversial on the left for preserving much of the Bush administration's legal structure for conducting the war on terror. He is controversial on the right for overturning portions of that structure in ways that seem both clueless and reckless. But Holder is the most endangered member of the Obama Cabinet for a different reason: Just about everything he has touched has backfired.

The list is oddly impressive. First, there was the decision to release Bush-era interrogation memos and reopen the investigation of CIA interrogators after they already had been cleared by career prosecutors. Holder assumed these actions would rally public outrage. Instead, he started a national security debate he has pretty much lost. Seven former CIA directors -- serving under Nixon, Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton and Bush 43 -- sent Holder a letter warning his actions could "help al-Qaeda elude U.S. intelligence and plan future operations." Holder opened a serious, ongoing rift between the Department of Justice and the intelligence community.

Second, there was Holder's repudiation in the matter of John Yoo and Jay Bybee -- the Bush administration lawyers who provided the legal justification for enhanced interrogations. Holder appointees had determined the two lawyers guilty of professional misconduct. But the Justice Department's senior career attorney cleared Yoo and Bybee of the charge, embarrassing Holder in the process.

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Third, there was the handling of the underwear bomber case. It is fortunate that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab eventually resumed cooperation. It is also evident that Holder's decision to Mirandize him after 50 minutes was hasty and based on minimal consultation with intelligence officials. Holder treated a national security judgment as a purely legal one. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair later told Congress: "That unit (the High Value Interrogation Group) was created exactly for this purpose -- to make a decision on whether a certain person who's detained should be treated as a case for federal prosecution or for some of the other means. We did not invoke the HIG in this case; we should have." In fact, Blair was unaware that the High Value Interrogation Group did not yet exist.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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