Attorney General Nominee Made His Name With Terror Cases

Michael Mukasey impressed the Bush administration after 9/11.
Michael Mukasey impressed the Bush administration after 9/11. (By Chip Somodevilla -- Getty Images)
By Susan Schmidt and Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 11, 2007

Early in the Bush administration, Michael B. Mukasey's position at the intersection of terrorism and the justice system may have cost him a promotion.

Mukasey, then chief judge of the main federal court in New York City, caught the eye of the White House for elevation to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. A conservative intellectual whose admirers cut across party lines, he was running the nation's busiest courthouse just a mile from Ground Zero -- one that had handled trials of Islamic radicals for nearly a decade.

Mukasey was invited to Washington in the spring of 2002 and impressed lawyers from the White House and the Justice Department, several people familiar with the interview recalled.

But that June, "dirty bomb" suspect Jose Padilla was declared an enemy combatant by President Bush. When Padilla's lawyers challenged the government's action, Mukasey drew the case. White House lawyers decided they could not offer Mukasey the appellate post without seeming to undermine his impartiality in a case important to the administration, those familiar with the issue said.

Now, Mukasey's experiences in the Padilla case and other terrorism prosecutions undergird his credentials for nomination to become attorney general. If confirmed by the Senate after hearings next week, the 66-year-old Bronx native will take over an embattled Justice Department. He will deal with Congress on national security issues that remain to be sorted out in the final year of the Bush administration -- including rules for interrogating suspects and gathering evidence in terrorism cases.

Mukasey recently argued in an opinion article for the Wall Street Journal that Congress should find new ways to relieve "a strained and mismatched legal system" that cannot adequately stop terrorist plots while guarding the rights of those suspected of hatching them. He has advocated creating national security courts for terrorism cases, where classified information could be presented to judges in secret.

"If there is anybody who has a handle on the debate on terrorism issues, it's him," said David N. Kelley, who served as U.S. attorney in New York from 2003 to 2005. "He is one of the only people who has sufficient practical experience together with the intellectual ability."

Mukasey is described by people who have worked with him as a serious-minded law-and-order judge, a reserved man whose work and life were shaped by terrorism cases and by the tightknit clan of prosecutors and lawyers who orbit the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Especially long-lasting has been Mukasey's relationship with the more outgoing Rudolph W. Giuliani, a fellow federal prosecutor in the 1970s who went on to become mayor and is now a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.

In the late 1970s and '80s, Mukasey and Giuliani were among a group of high-powered former prosecutors who revitalized the litigation practice at the law firm of Patterson, Belknap, Webb and Tyler. Mukasey is now on the Giuliani campaign's judicial advisory board, and his son works for Giuliani's law firm.

"It's almost like a fraternity. Everybody thinks they are wearing a white hat doing good working for the government," said Robert G. Morvillo, former chief prosecutor of the Southern District's criminal division and former boss of both Mukasey and Giuliani. Those two men "have grown up in the profession together," he said.

As a judge, Mukasey occasionally regaled his clerks with war stories from the old days. "He loved being an assistant U.S. attorney. I think that's what defined him," said a former colleague who agreed to share private recollections of Mukasey's days on the federal bench.

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