- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 25, 2009

John Durham, a no-nonsense federal prosecutor who has led a series of high-profile cases against the Mafia, corrupt politicians and the FBI, was tapped Monday by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. as a special prosecutor to investigate allegations of CIA interrogators’ abuse of terrorism suspects during the George W. Bush administration.

Mr. Durham, an assistant U.S. attorney from Connecticut and career prosecutor, already is presenting evidence to a grand jury in Alexandria in a case regarding the destruction of videotapes showing such controversial investigation techniques as waterboarding, which simulates drowning.

“I fully realize that my decision to commence this preliminary review will be controversial,” Mr. Holder said in a statement. “As attorney general, my duty is to examine the facts and to follow the law. In this case, given all of the information currently available, it is clear to me that this review is the only responsible course of action for me to take.”

Mr. Holder decided to call for the investigation - which is expected to include fewer than a dozen specific interrogations - based on recommendations from the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility.

All the cases that will be investigated were referred to the Justice Department during the Bush administration, but did not result in any prosecutions.

Mr. Durham’s appointment was applauded by those who have worked both with and against the career prosecutor.

“He’s extremely skillful, and he certainly knows how to try the case. He’s kind of the whole package,” said William Dow, a Connecticut defense lawyer who worked opposite Mr. Durham in the courtroom. “You cannot do better than John Durham.”

Former Connecticut U.S. Attorney Kevin O’Connor said Mr. Durham is “incredibly principled, incredibly hard-working, fair.” But he added that his intensity and no-nonsense style do not mean he takes a “win above all else” approach in the courtroom.

“He may be perceived by some as very aggressive, but I think anyone who has had the privilege of working with him will tell you he’s actually very balanced in how he approached every case,” said Mr. O’Connor, who served as chief of staff to former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales during the Bush administration.

Mr. O’Connor added that Mr. Durham has the “courage” to walk away from a case he doesn’t believe has merit.

“If he doesn’t believe a case should be brought, he’s not going to bring it, regardless of what the media, Congress or anyone else will say about him,” he said. “At the same time, he’s not afraid to bring a case, regardless of what the media or what any politician or what anyone else may say about him.

“And in these types of scenarios where there’s intense public scrutiny, he’s the perfect choice.”

Hugh Keefe, a longtime defense lawyer in Connecticut, echoed Mr. O’Connor’s perspective on Mr. Durham as a prosecutor with an abundance of discretion and as someone who is not prone to overreact.

“John can distinguish serious crimes from non-serious ones, and he can distinguish bad guys from guys that are not so bad,” Mr. Keefe said. “He understands perfectly that good people can get themselves in a bad jam once in a while and it doesn’t mean that they’re evil - they’re just good people who made a mistake.”

Mr. Durham, who has served more than 25 years with the Justice Department, has made a career of bringing public corruption investigations to trial.

He gained national prominence following the 1989 murder of Mafia underboss William Grasso, which led to one of the biggest mob takedowns in U.S. history. He then turned to Connecticut street gangs, winning dozens of convictions and putting some gang leaders in prison for life.

In 1999, then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno appointed him to investigate the FBI Boston office’s handling of informants in Mafia-related cases. The probe, which looked at whether the informants had corrupted their FBI handlers, helped send retired FBI agent John Connolly to prison. The case served as the inspiration for characters in an Oscar-winning film, “The Departed.”

Mr. Durham, whom the Wall Street Journal has described as a registered Republican, also supervised a corruption investigation that sent former Republican Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland and several members of his administration to prison.

Former Attorney General John Ashcroft awarded Mr. Durham the Award for Exceptional Service in 2004.

But Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, objected to the basic decision of hiring a prosecutor for these cases. Mr. Lieberman said the country will “come to regret” the attorney general’s decision to continue investigating the CIA case because it “will have a chilling effect on the men and women agents of our intelligence community.”

“We cannot take for granted the fact that our homeland has not been attacked since September 11, 2001,” Mr. Lieberman said. “That has occurred only because of the constant vigilance and unflinching efforts by those brave individuals in our military, civilian homeland security and counterterrorism agencies, and the intelligence community.”

Mr. Lieberman added that while CIA agents must live within the law, “they must also be free to do their dangerous and critical jobs without worrying that years from now, a future attorney general will authorize a criminal investigation of them for behavior that a previous attorney general concluded was authorized and legal.”

Mr. Durham’s appointment came within minutes of the release of a newly declassified CIA document describing how interrogators threatened to kill the children of one Sept. 11 terrorism suspect and may have threatened to sexually assault the mother of another detainee.

The administration also announced Monday that all U.S. interrogators will follow the rules for detainees laid out by the Army Field Manual. That decision aims to end years of fierce debate over how rough U.S. personnel can get with terrorism suspects in custody.

President Obama, who campaigned vigorously last year against the Bush administration’s interrogation practices, more recently had backed off, saying he didn’t particularly favor prosecuting Bush administration officials in connection with instances of prisoner abuse.

But Obama spokesman Bill Burton said the president believes the attorney general should be fully independent from the White House and that Mr. Holder “ultimately is going to make the decisions” in the CIA case.

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