Why Is David Ogden Leaving?

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Deputy Attorney General David Ogden is resigning, the Justice Department said today. Mr. Ogden led President Obama's Justice transition team and has been deeply involved in virtually every major Justice Department initiative conceived by the administration since the inauguration.


Ogden, 56, plans to return to private practice at WilmerHale in February, he said in a statement. Ogden said he "accepted the challenge" of government service with the understanding that he would return to private practice once certain goals were met. These include, he and other Justice Department officials said, the  reorientation and rejuvenation of the Civil Rights Division, fostering better relationships between civil service staff and political appointees, mending relationships with other government agencies like the Department of Homeland Security and setting up various new enforcement task forces.
"We have lots of activity in areas that the department had been criticized for being lax in," a department spokesperson said. "Getting that all started up in a year is a real accomplishment, and he was a big part of it."

Ogden's relationship with senior White House officials was somewhat less than comfortable. Some Obama aides found him insular and unwilling to properly coordinate major legal policy and judicial nomination issues with the White House Counsel's office. 

The Attorney General, Eric Holder, has conspicuously declared his independence from President Obama on matters of law enforcement and prosecution -- a move the White House accepted as appropriate. But the White House came to rely on Ogden's office to make sure that sensitive policy issues were handled with the requisite political sensitivity.  Ogden, by all accounts a top legal mind and a competent manager, "had a tin ear for institutional politics," an administration official with direct knowledge of his situation said.  

Holder, this official said, wants to replace Ogden with a deputy who can smooth relationships with Obama and his lawyers.  Friction between a White House and a Justice Department is inevitable. Holder's chief of staff is a long-term career employee, and his personal office lacks a senior level executive with close ties to Obama officials. That's by design. One transition goal that Holder took to heart was the preservation of the department's independence. 

The third-ranking lawyer at the department, Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, went to law school with the president and gets along famously with White House officials.  As Holder's deputy, Ogden supervised the day-to-day workings of the department, and the head of the prestigious criminal division reported directly to him. 

The Washington Post reported that Ogden "sometimes crossed swords" with Holder's aides.  The Post also reported that Ogden had been ill in recent weeks, and had re-evaluated his willingness to stay in such a high-pressure job for too much longer. 

According to officials, skirmishes between Ogden and the White House were less acrimonious in recent months. Ogden helped to develop the administration's new interrogation policies and the legal framework for disposing of Guantanamo Bay detainees, but on neither issue was he the point person.

Officials insisted that his resignation was not related to policy disagreements, and that it was entirely separate from the departure of Phil Carter, a high-ranking Department of Defense official responsible for detainee affairs. Analysts in the civil rights community believe that Carter resigned in protest over a disagreement with the White House on detainee legal issues, but Carter has denied the existence of any such tension. 

Earlier this month, Obama accepted the resignation of counsel Gregory Craig, believing he was a poor fit for a job that requires a mastery of both law and politics.

"David Ogden has been an invaluable leader for the Department of Justice and for this Administration,"  Holder said in a statement.  "From leading the transition team that established early goals for the Department to spearheading major initiatives such as our effort to fight health care fraud, he has been an effective and diligent advocate for the American people.  Through his work here, he has helped reinvigorate the Department's traditional missions, restore its reputation for independence, and make the country safer and more secure.  I am sorry to see him go, and I thank him for his service to the Department and to the nation."

Deputy Assistant Attorney General Gary Grindler will take Ogden's job until a replacement is nominated.
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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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