Washington Post opinion writer David Ignatius says that the real scandal at the Justice Department isn’t the botched leak investigations, but the fact that Attorney General Eric Holder is “mediocre” at best:
People are looking for the wrong ‘scandal’ about Attorney General Eric Holder. The problem with Holder is the plain fact that, in the judgment of a wide range of legal colleagues, he has been a mediocre attorney general.
Holder’s mistakes in management and judgment are clear in the current controversy about leak investigations. He was silent as zealous prosecutors overrode the Justice Department’s guidelines for subpoenaing reporters; he recused himself from the case but bizarrely doesn’t seem to have kept a written record of the recusal; and he failed utterly to anticipate the political flap that erupted when Justice informed the Associated Press that it had collected the call records for more than 20 phone lines.
The leak cases illustrate Holder’s tendency to blow with the prevailing winds. His prosecution of leakers was certainly in the hawkish spirit of a bipartisan anti-leak bill introduced last year by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Democrat who chairs the Senate intelligence committee, which proposed more draconian anti-media measures than anything Holder has done. Justice went with the conservative flow until the leak prosecutions become controversial a few weeks ago — and Holder rediscovered his interest in a shield law.
‘Holder substitutes his political judgment for his legal judgment, and his political judgment isn’t very good’ is the way one White House official put it to a prominent Washington lawyer recently. That criticism was seconded by a half-dozen other leading Washington lawyers I consulted.
Ignatius writes that Holder’s problem isn’t that he and Obama are close friends—Robert Kennedy served as Attorney General while his brother was president—but that unlike Kennedy, Holder hasn’t recruited the top legal minds to work for him. He also faults Holder for failing to shape legal policy, as well as mishandling many cases, including the decision to prosecute Khalid Sheik Mohammed in a civilian court, which he had to reverse after igniting a political firestorm:
Part of the attorney general’s job is clearing political obstacles to allow effective law enforcement. Here, too, many attorneys fault Holder. A classic example was the plan to prosecute 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheik Mohammed in a civilian court in New York. Holder made what many regard as the right decision to try the case there. But he hadn’t done the necessary political groundwork among New York and national politicians, and when a political firestorm ignited, he reversed his decision.
‘Feckless’ is the word one disappointed Washington legal insider uses to describe this and other Holder decisions.
Despite these missteps, Obama has stood firmly behind Holder, tolerating what Ignatius calls his “mediocre performance.” The reason, he says, is that Obama has let their friendship cloud his judgment as to what is the right thing to do in this case, showing once again that his commitment to transparency was just another false promise.