Holder Hires Prosecutor to Look Into Alleged CIA Interrogation Abuses

John Durham
John Durham (Bob Child - AP)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 25, 2009

In appointing a prosecutor to investigate alleged CIA interrogation abuses, including episodes that resulted in prisoner deaths, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Monday shook off warnings from President Obama to avoid becoming mired in past controversies.

Holder said that he realizes the move is controversial but that it was the only responsible course to take.

The decision does not reflect a sharp division between the Justice Department and the White House, government officials said, given the limits of the preliminary review and the respect that Obama says he maintains for the role of an independent attorney general. But it could mark the beginning of a painstaking inquiry that tests the boundaries of the Justice Department's discretion and its ability to evaluate incomplete evidence collected on the world's battlegrounds.

Holder has named longtime prosecutor John H. Durham, who has parachuted into crisis situations for both political parties over three decades, to open an early review of nearly a dozen cases of alleged detainee mistreatment at the hands of CIA interrogators and contractors.

The announcement raised fresh tensions in an intelligence community fearful that it will bear the brunt of the punishment for Bush-era national security policy, and it immediately provoked criticism from congressional Republicans.

Legal analysts said the review, while preliminary, could expand beyond its relatively narrow mandate and ensnare a wider cast of characters. They cited U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald's investigation of the leak of a CIA operative's identity, which culminated with the criminal conviction of then-Vice President Richard B. Cheney's chief of staff.

In a statement Monday afternoon, Holder cautioned that the inquiry is far from a full-blown criminal investigation. Rather, he said, it is unknown whether indictments or prosecutions of CIA contractors and employees will follow. Lawyers involved in similar reviews said that any possible cases could take years to build because of challenges with witnesses and evidence.

"I fully realize that my decision to commence this preliminary review will be controversial," Holder added. "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."

Obama and White House officials have said that they want to look ahead on national security; White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said last week that the administration is eager to keep "going forward" and that "a hefty litigation looking backward is not what we believe is in the country's best interest."

But the White House voiced support for Holder in a news conference held Monday on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., where deputy press secretary Bill Burton told reporters that "ultimately, the decisions on who is investigated and who is prosecuted are up to the attorney general. . . . The president thinks that Eric Holder, who he appointed as a very independent attorney general, should make those decisions."

But nearly as important in the high-stakes analysis will be Durham, 59, an assistant U.S. attorney in Connecticut who has investigated Boston mob kingpins, corrupt FBI agents and his state's GOP governor. Durham rarely speaks publicly, but in private he cracks jokes, follows the Boston Red Sox and regularly attends Mass with his wife of several decades. One of his four sons followed in his father's footsteps and now serves as a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn.

Though a registered Republican, Durham generally is regarded as apolitical, and attorneys general from both parties -- including Janet Reno, Michael B. Mukasey and Holder -- have tapped him for their most difficult assignments.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company