By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 6, 2010; A01
When Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. stepped up to the lectern at 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday, it was more than an unusual middle-of-the-night appearance trumpeting the swift arrest of an alleged terrorist. It also marked a rare moment of glory for the attorney general.
Holder has been on rocky ground for months. His decision last November to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-declared mastermind behind the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in federal court in Manhattan was quickly opposed by New York lawmakers, then reversed by the White House. He was criticized for having the suspect in the failed Christmas Day bombing read his Miranda rights soon after his arrest -- and then later for quipping that the same would not happen to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden because officials would be "reading Miranda rights to a corpse."
A good week doesn't necessarily make for a turnaround. But with the arrest of Faisal Shahzad in connection with Saturday's attempted bombing in Times Square, Holder and the law enforcement agencies he oversees were able to claim a victory for the administration.
Holder was in Ohio on Wednesday for a judicial conference and spoke only briefly about the Times Square incident. But a Justice Department official acknowledged that this has been one of the attorney general's better weeks in what has been a rough year.
Holder rarely acts as the public face of the Obama administration. For instance, he has never appeared on "Meet the Press" as a Cabinet member. Several administration officials said they still worry when he is scheduled to testify before Congress because he has displayed a political tin ear in the past.
His allies, however, expressed delight about the events of the past few days. "All jobs have bumps at the highest levels of government, and I think he expects it to be difficult," senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, a longtime friend, said Wednesday. "Contrary to what I have read and been surprised by in the press, we have had a consistently good and open line of communication between the White House and the Justice Department."
Likewise, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel acknowledged that Holder had "a very good week," comparing his ups and downs to those experienced by Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner. "A year ago, people were saying Geithner isn't what he's supposed to be -- and now he has his mojo back," Emanuel said Wednesday. "The same with Eric."
David Axelrod, a senior adviser to President Obama, drew an identical comparison in a separate interview, saying: "Washington is a town of ups and downs, and there are other members of the administration -- I think of Geithner, for example -- who was in the barrel for a while. And it's just the way this town works."
If there is such a barrel, Holder has been in it more than most.
Republican lawmakers have repeatedly made him a target of criticism, sometimes calling for his resignation. Among the reasons: his failure to disclose on his confirmation questionnaire that he had filed an amicus brief on behalf of Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen imprisoned for having planned a dirty-bomb attack.
Holder has also been at the center of debate over the administration's handling of terrorism cases, including the decision to try Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the man arrested in the Christmas Day incident, in criminal court rather than in the military system. Other Cabinet officials agreed, saying that because Abdulmutallab had been arrested on U.S. soil after the plane he allegedly tried to bomb landed in Detroit, he was within the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system.
But in other areas, Holder has clashed with senior Obama officials, most notably Emanuel. The attorney general's decision to expand an investigation into CIA interrogation practices during George W. Bush's administration drew immense ire from Obama advisers who wanted the president to be forward-looking and not to alienate the intelligence community.
Holder's most controversial move was the one last autumn to try Mohammed and other Sept. 11 suspects in criminal court in Lower Manhattan, not far from Ground Zero. While Obama had campaigned on a platform of returning the "rule of law," Holder was unable to build support for the decision. Local officials and lawmakers soon objected to holding the trial in New York, arguing that it would be too expensive and dangerous for the city. The White House took control of the issue -- and all but decided that Manhattan was off the table as a possible venue.
Now, senior administration officials are saying they may not decide where to try the case until after this fall's midterm elections. Similarly, negotiations are stalled on closing the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The tangle of detainee issues, which have caused some of Holder's biggest headaches, remains problematic for him, experts said.
Still, Paul J. McNulty, who served as deputy attorney general in the Bush administration, said Holder should be praised for the response to the attempted bombing -- both for the law enforcement execution and his own performance. "The investigation has been handled well, and federal and local law enforcement deserves credit for that,'' he said. "The attorney general should be the face of those successful efforts."
National security issues have not been a focus for Holder over his career, but he has told staff members that they must be his top priority now.
"There is nothing more important in my job as attorney general than trying to keep the American people safe, and these last 48 to 72 hours have been a stark reminder that there are people and organizations around this world that are dedicated to hurting, killing American people," Holder said at his news conference Tuesday. "So we have to do all that we can. And we are lucky to have great FBI agents, great local and state partners in law enforcement who do a great job in keeping us safe."
Staff writers Robert Barnes and Jerry Markon contributed to this report.