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One of these jobs is not like the others

December 1, 2008 | 12:43 pm
Barack Obama, Justice Department, Homeland security, Eric Holder, attorney general
New teammates Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, James L. Jones, Janet Napolitano and Susan Rice (EPA/Anne Ryan/Pool)

When President-elect Barack Obama raised the diaphanous curtain on his national-security team on Monday, I was reminded of the Sesame Street ditty "One of These Things (Is Not Like The Others)." The roll call went: Hillary "It's 3 a.m." Clinton as secretary of state; Robert "Vicar of Bray" Gates as secretary of defense; Susan Rice as chief representative to the U.N.; Gen. James Jones as national security adviser; Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano as homeland security secretary; and Eric Holder as attorney general.

Huh?

Since when is the attorney general part of the national security team? Granted, the Justice Department prosecutes accused terrorists and traitors, and the FBI -- which defines protection of the nation from terrorist attack as its No. 1 priority -- exists uneasily under the DOJ aegis. But the attorney general's brief is much broader than national security, comprising anti-trust law; civil rights; liaison with state and local law enforcement in the investigation of bank robberies and street crime; and the defense of federal statutes in the Supreme Court.

More cosmically, the mission of DOJ is symbolized two statues -- one of a woman called the Spirit of Justice, the other of a man known as the Majesty of the Law. Neither is depicted as studying military maps or listening in on phone calls from suspected terrorists.

Obama's grouping of Holder with Clinton, Gates et al. is particularly perplexing in light of the new president's policy positions. While not endorsing the L.A. Times' proposal that all accused terrorists be tried in ordinary criminal courts, Obama has promised to close Guantanamo and his aides have told reporters that some, if not all, detainees will be processed through the criminal justice system. One of the changes that some Obama supporters believed in was an end to the Bush-Cheney policy of subordinating the pursuit of justice to the war on terror.

An alternative explanation for Holder's inclusion in the national security cluster is more benign: that Obama wanted to remind diehard Cheneyites that the war on terror can't be fought with a blind eye to civil liberties. But is drafting the AG on to the national security team the best way to send that message? Surely the transition team could have afforded to hold a separate get-acquainted session for the nation's top law-enforcement official.

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