Holder's Pick for CIA Investigation Known as Tough, Diligent
Monday, August 24, 2009; 3:49 PM
Justice Department leaders representing both political parties have turned to John H. Durham for most of his three-decade legal career to unravel their most vexing and sensational problems.
As a federal prosecutor in Connecticut, Durham helped convict the state's GOP governor on corruption charges five years ago. In a different case, he untangled a labyrinthine series of shady relationships between state police officers, FBI agents and mob kingpins in Boston that helped inspire the Academy Award-winning film "The Departed." And Monday he got what may be his toughest assignment yet: He is the new attorney general's choice to review nearly a dozen cases in which CIA employees and contractors may have abused terrorism suspects in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The task puts Durham, 59, in the middle of legal and political currents that have roiled the nation's capital for months and have complicated the Obama administration's efforts to move ahead with its legislative agenda.
But people who have worked with Durham said that his record as a go-to lawyer for both the Clinton and Bush Justice Departments and his reputation for operating quietly, outside the media glare, make him a logical choice for the job.
For 19 months, Durham has been investigating the 2005 destruction of CIA videotapes that depict brutal waterboarding of the agency's high-value terrorism suspects. The investigation is proceeding before a grand jury in Alexandria, though people following the case have raised questions about whether anyone will be charged with a crime.
Access to troves of classified material about the agency and its interrogation practices helped prepare Durham for the new assignment, according to sources familiar with the decision Monday by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
Durham will be asked to examine a small number of cases, which sources pegged at fewer than a dozen, involving allegations that CIA employees broke anti-torture and other laws in connection with the agency's interrogation program in Iraq, Afghanistan and other possible secret sites. He will ultimately make a recommendation to Holder about whether a full-fledged criminal investigation should be launched.
Durham is a registered Republican, but defense attorneys and former colleagues who have worked closely with him describe the prosecutor as apolitical. He also is a devout Catholic and an avid Boston Red Sox fan. Durham earned his law degree from the University of Connecticut in 1975 before volunteering as a social worker on an Indian reservation in South Dakota. He has four sons and a dry sense of humor, acquaintances say.
Durham declined to comment Monday through a spokesman at the U.S. attorney's office in Connecticut.
Lawyers who have followed Durham say that he is painstaking in his work, a perfectionist who takes longer than expected to reach legal conclusions. Sources familiar with Holder's decision say that Durham will not be operating under a specific deadline and that his inquiry likely will proceed in secret, a move that follows Justice Department practice but could disappoint Democrats who have called for a full airing of alleged Bush era national security abuses.
Given his history, however, Durham may give little heed to conclusions that his superiors or the law-enforcement community want him to reach. In 2000, he turned over FBI documents that led a judge to throw out murder convictions against figures allegedly connected to organized crime leaders in Boston. Two years later, he worked on a team that helped win the conviction of a retired FBI agent who helped protect Boston mob kingpins.
"John's just a textbook, indefatigable, fair-minded prosecutor," said Jeffrey Meyer, a former colleague who now teaches law at Quinnipiac University. "In Connecticut, he's been a legend really in prosecutorial circles for many years, and he's becoming more renowned as he's taken on these more recent cases."
Kevin O'Connor, who served as Durham's former boss in Connecticut, praised Durham last month after The Washington Post first raised the possibility that he could be assigned to investigate CIA contractors.
"He's not afraid to bring a tough case and he's not afraid to close a case that people want to bring to trial if the evidence doesn't support it," O'Connor told the New Republic. "I've never met a person who cares less about what people say about him and that's what makes him who he is."