Relentless Terrorism Prosecutor Faces Accusations of His Own

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sami al-Arian, one of the nation's most prominent terrorism defendants, was about to be released into his daughter's custody to await a new trial on contempt charges. Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg protested, saying that "in this particular culture," a woman could not prevent her father from fleeing.

U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema lashed out at the prosecutor, calling his remark about the Muslim family insulting. Earlier, she had chastised Kromberg for changing a boilerplate immunity order beyond the language spelled out by Congress and questioned whether Arian's constitutional rights had been violated.

"I'm not in any respect attributing evil motives or anything clandestine to you, but I think it's real scary and not wise for a prosecutor to provide an order to the Court that does not track the explicit language of the statutes, especially this particular statute," Brinkema said at the hearing in the Alexandria courtroom.

Kromberg, 51, is in many ways the quintessential post-Sept. 11 prosecutor, a relentless interrogator and sophisticated lawyer who has won convictions in high-profile terrorism cases. But he has been dogged by a pattern of controversial comments and actions that some Muslims say reflects bias against their faith. Those allegations have swirled on the Internet, in the halls of the Alexandria federal courthouse and in sworn affidavits by defense attorneys, who say Kromberg joked about a suspect being tortured, improperly confronted another suspect in public and decried "the Islamization of the American justice system."

Defenders of the fast-talking New York native say he has a tough-but-fair style that keeps Americans safe and reflects the Bush administration's aggressive approach to fighting terrorism. They expressed frustration that Arian's supporters, who have mounted an international campaign for his release, have made a career prosecutor the issue almost as much as the convicted terrorism supporter whose testimony he is pursuing.

"Gordon is very effective and professional," said Andrew McCarthy, a former federal terrorism prosecutor. "As long as nothing goes boom, they want to say you're an Islamophobe. The moment something does go boom, if the next 9/11 happens, God help anyone who says they weren't as aggressive as Gordon."

Defense lawyers and legal ethicists argue that Kromberg's comments and actions, if true, crossed the line. "He's a loose cannon," said Stephen Gillers, an expert in legal ethics at New York University Law School who reviewed court documents in the Arian case. "If I were the Justice Department, I wouldn't want him on the front lines of these highly visible, highly contentious prosecutions."

Through a spokesman, Kromberg declined to comment.

The tensions surrounding Kromberg burst into public view during the Aug. 8 hearing for Arian, who is charged with refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating whether Islamic charities in Northern Virginia were financing terrorists. The prosecutor arose in the crowded courtroom, accused his critics of "venomous, hateful, anti-Semitic attacks" and cited a rally in the District last month at which a former U.S. senator from Alaska told Arian supporters to "find out where [Kromberg] lives."

"Find out where his kids go to school. Find out where his office is. Picket him . . . call him a racist," said Mike Gravel, who ran for the Democratic nomination for president this year, according to an audiotape.

An NYU Law School graduate who worked as a military defense attorney for the Army in the 1980s, Kromberg was using cutting-edge legal tactics before Sept. 11, 2001. After joining the U.S. attorney's office in Alexandria in 1993, the wiry, quick-witted prosecutor became an expert in forfeiture -- seizing money and property gained from crime.

He highlighted his approach during a 1999 speech at the Cato Institute in Washington, saying the government should seek the assets of drug dealers even if they are not charged. "Does that mean you should just walk away and let the activity continue? . . . Not if you want to punish the defendant in some way short of prosecuting him," he said, according to a videotape.

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