Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. seems to have a bizarre urge to stick his finger in the eyes of congressmen. On subject after sub-
ject, he has refused to give substantive answers to basic, straightforward congressional inquiries. In the latest instance, Mr. Holder’s obstinacy could put national security at risk.
This page reported in an exclusive last November that Associate Attorney General Thomas J. Perrelli, the Justice Department’s third-ranking official, recused himself on at least 39 cases of terrorist detainees - presumably because his former law firm did work for those detainees, even if Mr. Perrelli himself did not. Our report came in the context of a Senate hearing where Mr. Holder dismissively treated requests from Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, for the Justice Department to provide a list of all detainee cases from which Justice Department lawyers were recused, and the names of the lawyers.
On Feb. 19, after three months of stalling, Holder aide Ronald Welch finally deigned to respond to Mr. Grassley. “I asked for names, cases and recusals, and in return I received a five-page letter of bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo that failed to sufficiently answer my simple questions,” said Mr. Grassley. Mr. Welch told the senator that at least nine lawyers at the department either represented detainees or worked on amicus briefs on detainees’ behalf. But he didn’t name the lawyers (other than two already identified by Mr. Grassley), or the cases or other relevant information.
This is an important issue. The public has a right to know if past work for terrorist detainees has biased too many of Mr. Holder’s top advisers. Biased advice might explain his odd decisions to treat terrorist suspects with kid gloves, like ordinary criminals rather than as enemy combatants. Many lawyers proudly worked for terrorist detainees. Senators and the public they serve should be aware if the department has too much of a critical mass of such lawyers.
Here’s what we do know: In March, the Legal Times named 14 Justice Department lawyers whose firms at least did significant detainee work and who therefore might need recusals in specific cases. They included Mr. Holder himself, Mr. Perrelli, then-Deputy Attorney General David J. Ogden, and a list of mid- to high-ranking underlings that includes lawyers James Garland, John Bies, Aaron Lewis, Stuart Delery, Eric Columbus, Chad Golder, Brian Hauck, Donald Verrilli, Lanny Breuer, Tony West and Neal Katyal. Mr. Grassley added the name of Jennifer Daskal, who was known as a particularly avid promoter of the terrorist detainees.
Mr. Holder, however, could easily have added more information. For instance, Mr. Columbus himself, not just someone from his former law firm, was an attorney of record in portions of the landmark case of Boumediene v. Bush, where a divided Supreme Court ruled that detainees do enjoy access to U.S. courts. Mr. Columbus presumably is one of the seven lawyers unidentified by Mr. Welch’s unhelpful letter. This is important because Mr. Columbus’ job as senior counsel for the deputy attorney general gives him some supervisory authority over both the Criminal and National Security divisions of the Justice Department - the very divisions involved with deciding how to handle the detainees.
Another of the seven unidentified lawyers likely is Jonathan G. Cedarbaum, now a deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel. He, too, worked on the Boumediene case.
If there was nothing wrong with these attorneys working in private practice on detainees, then Mr. Holder should release all their names and cases. The alternative - that there really is something to hide - would be an even bigger scandal.