Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. said today that getting Dawn Johnsen confirmed to head department's Office of Legal Counsel was "probably my top priority."
The Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed her in March on a party-line vote, and since then Democrats have been trying to cobble together a 60-vote bloc to end debate on her nomination in the full Senate. A bipartisan group of former Justice Department officials has been trumpeting her qualifications. Meanwhile, Republicans, foremost among them Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), have pushed the party to unify against Johnsen for her criticisms of Bush national security policies and her work as legal director for NARAL Pro-Choice America from 1988 to 1993.
At a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing this morning, Holder said the office is being run by capable layers but required the "solidity and continuity" supplied by a Senate-confirmed assistant attorney general. The office provides legal advice to the president and executive agencies. President Barack Obama's recent decision to release Bush-era OLC memos endorsing harsh interrogation methods and sweeping views of executive power publicly underscored the office's influence, inviting more scrutiny of Johnsen, a law professor at Indiana University and former acting head of OLC during the Clinton administration.
Holder, in his second hearing on the department's proposed $26.7 billion budget, was again confronted with questions about the OLC interrogation memos and the possibility that some Guantanamo Bay detainees could be warehoused in the United States.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) ask Holder whether he had received any direction or guidance from the White House about a possible probe into the CIA interrogation program. Holder noted that the department's Office of Professional Responsibility was still in the final stages of its investigation of the lawyers who authored the OLC memos -- Jay Bybee, John Yoo, and Steven Bradbury. The attorney general said he would wait to review the OPR report before considering further action.
Holder said, "Our desire is not to do anything that would be perceived as political or partisan," but added that "to the extent that we see violations of laws we will take appropriate action."
Republican senators pressed Holder on whether detainees would be released in the United States or incarcerated here pending trial. "Do you know of any community that would welcome terrorists, former terrorists, would-be terrorists?" asked Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), ranking member on the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and related agencies.
Holder said the current review of the 241 detainees was ongoing and that no decisions had been made as to whom would be tried and where, but he emphasized that the transfer or release of any detainee -- whether in the United States or abroad -- would only be "done in a way that will not have any impact on the safety of the place that will receive them."
Shelby and Alexander both pointed out that the Clinton administration used rendition -- the practice spiriting suspected terrorists to another country for interrogation -- and asked Holder about his involvement in the program while he was the Justice Department's No. 2 official. Holder said he knew generally of the practice but could not say how often it was used or articulate specific interrogation techniques used on suspects. Shelby asked Holder to provide him with information showing what steps the Justice Department took to ensure the program was in compliance with the law. Holder said he would.