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Uncertainty raised over Justice Department's handling of detainees

GOP senators question the integrity of the administration's policies after learning that nine appointees at the department worked on behalf of 'enemy combatants' confined at Guantanamo Bay

March 03, 2010|By Richard A. Serrano

Reporting from Washington — Nine top political appointees at the Justice Department previously worked as lawyers or advocates for "enemy combatants" confined at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prompting new questions from Congress and conservative critics about the integrity of the administration's handling of detainees.

The Justice Department insists that the officials have not involved themselves in matters dealing with enemy combatants. But the department has revealed the names of only two of the nine appointees, making it difficult to independently assess the claim. And one of the named officials -- Jennifer Daskal, a lawyer in the national security division -- sits on a task force weighing the future of Guantanamo prisoners. She is a former senior counsel for Human Rights Watch, which worked on behalf of ensuring constitutional rights for detainees during the George W. Bush presidency.

The other named official is Neal Katyal, the principal deputy solicitor general, who argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of Salim Ahmed Hamdan and won a 2006 ruling that Bush's military tribunal system violated the rules of military justice and the Geneva Conventions. Hamdan, a former bodyguard and driver for Osama bin Laden, later was released and returned to Yemen.

According to congressional sources, one of the other seven appointees is Tony West, an assistant attorney general who heads the civil division. In 2002, he was part of the California-based legal team that represented John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban.

These kinds of backgrounds and connections "raise serious questions about who is providing advice on detainee matters," a group of Republican senators told Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. last week.

One of the sharpest critics is a group called Keep America Safe, run in part by Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney. It has derided the unidentified appointees as the "Al Qaeda 7," and in a video on its website Tuesday asked, "Whose values do they share?"

In a Feb. 18 letter to the senators, Ronald Welch, an assistant attorney general, said five Justice Department lawyers provided legal counsel to detainees and four filed friend-of-the-court legal papers on behalf of detainees or advocated on their behalf. He identified them only as working in Holder's office, for the deputy attorney general and in other top positions at the department.

"To the best of our knowledge," Welch wrote, "during their employment prior to joining the government, only five of the lawyers who serve as political appointees represented detainees, and four others either contributed to amicus briefs in detainee-related cases or were otherwise involved in advocacy on behalf of detainees."

Others, he said, "came to the department from law firms where other lawyers represented detainees."

In naming Katyal and Daskal, Welch said both appointees had been careful not to overstep rules governing professional conduct.

He said Katyal, after joining the Justice Department, had "participated in litigation involving detainees who continue to be detained" at Bagram air base in Afghanistan. He said Katyal also has participated in litigation involving Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, who was arrested in Illinois and accused of being an Al Qaeda sleeper cell agent.

Welch said Daskal had "generally worked on policy issues related to detainees" but that "her detainee-related work has been fully consistent with advice she received from career department officials regarding her obligations."

In referring to all of the political appointees, Welch said that none "would permit or has permitted any prior affiliation to interfere with the vital task of protecting national security, and any suggestion to the contrary is absolutely false."

In addition, Tracy Schmaler, a department spokeswoman, said Tuesday that "department attorneys are subject to ethics and disclosure rules as required under both department guidelines and the administration's own ethics rules, which are the strongest in history." She added that "it should be clear that fighting terrorism and keeping the American people safe is our No. 1 priority."

Nevertheless, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, said the Justice Department had not given a full accounting of who and how many top appointees might have conflicts.

Sessions said the issue was whether "the attorney general believes that treating terrorists like civilians enhances or damages our ability to gather crucial intelligence." He said that issue could not be answered until the other seven names were released.

"It's time for these policies to meet the light of day -- and for the public to get the answers they deserve," Sessions said.

richard.serrano@ latimes.com

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