Career Staff Get Key Posts At Justice's National Security Division

In a pro-forma press release today, the Justice Department's National Security Division (NSD) released the names of its leadership today. Reporting to David Kris, the assistant attorney general in charge of the NSD, are several credentialed national security lawyers with significant connections to the Democratic Party.  But there are also officials -- Brad Weigman, Sheryl Walter, Tanisha Guahar, Leonard Bailey, Carol Cordero and George Toscas -- who have served more than one president.  

Weigman served as deputy chief of staff of the division, Justice's newest, during the latter part of the Bush administration and will be Kris's principal deputy. He currently heads up the interagency review on interrogations policy.


Walter was chief of staff of the Office of Intelligence Policy Review from 2003 to 2006. According to the joint inspectors general report on the President's Surveillance Program, OIPR -- the reservoir of knowledge about national security and intelligence law at the department -- was deliberately kept out of the loop by senior administration officials when the program was first implemented. Indeed, it was several years later, when OIPR lawyers began to be read in -- or officially briefed -- about the program did career department officials begin to voice their objections, and it was OIPR that was instrumental in bringing the PSPs various programs into compliance with federal law, working with the Office of Legal Counsel, then with Congress, to develop new guidelines. She will be executive officer of the NSD under Kris.

Guahar has for the department in a variety of national security-related jobs since 2001.  Toscas has been a prosecutor for more than a decade. Cordero has worked for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and was an OIPR attorney. And Leonard Bailey, a long-time Justice Department cyber-law expert, will counsel Kris on that subject.

The distinction between political appointees and career staff is one that the general public often misses. The political appointees come and go, and the career staff -- the dreaded bureaucrats -- keep the department running and serve as institutional memories and consciences.  At the highest level of government, the Bush national security team didn't trust the DoJ career staff. The Obama Justice Department's decision to retain at least three long-time Justice Department national security officials -- and to name them as part of their leadership team -- suggests that, when it comes to national security law -- still a largely uncharted legal territory -- the Obama administration values the experience of people who have been there -- even if they were there when many controversial things were happening -- even though the retention of these employees will subject them to the allegation that the Bush folks are still in charge.

A Justice Department spokesman objected to singling out any career official - though the names were obtained from a press release distributed earlier today.  This is understandable. Aside from perhaps the CIA and the Department of Defense's legal counsel, the Justice Department's national security staff worked in an atmosphere where every action was interpreted by the press, politicians and much of the public as either an attempt to justify illegal behavior or an attempt to move away from it. A mere association with the Justice Department or the intelligence community during the Bush administration is enough in some quarters to raise suspicions about motivation and intent. 

The Obama administration has largely kept senior civil servants in place at all three departments and has not signaled that they want them replaced. In doing so, they've drawn criticism from civil liberties advocates who attribute some of the administration's early legal opinions on national security to the power exerted by career staff.  The way the administration sees it is different: the career folks know what happened, know why it happened, know how to fix it, and have the most at stake when it comes to getting it right. 
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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