Senior senators on both sides of the aisle leveled heavy criticism Tuesday against a controversial ad put forth by Liz Cheney and William Kristol, which labeled Justice Department lawyers as the "al Qaeda 7."
The ad, paid for and produced by the group Keep American Safe, referred to the U.S. Justice Department as the "Department of Jihad," and called out Attorney General Eric Holder for hiring but not revealing the names of several attorneys who had previously worked to defend terrorism suspects. More than a dozen Bush administration era legal officials have already condemned the ad.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Senate Armed Services and Judiciary Committees, told The Cable Tuesday that the Cheney-Kristol ad was inappropriate and unfairly demonized DOJ lawyers for doing a noble public service by defending unpopular suspects.
"I've been a military lawyer for almost 30 years, I represented people as a defense attorney in the military that were charged with some pretty horrific acts, and I gave them my all," said Graham. "This system of justice that we're so proud of in America requires the unpopular to have an advocate and every time a defense lawyer fights to make the government do their job, that defense lawyer has made us all safer."
Graham pointed out that when Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito were facing Senate confirmation, some attempted to use their client lists against them and it was wrong then too.
"I'm with Kenneth Starr on this one," Graham added, referring to a letter signed by several GOP lawyers, many of whom defended Bush-era detainee policies, condemning the "al Qaeda 7" ad.
"To suggest that the Justice Department should not employ talented lawyers who have advocated on behalf of detainees maligns the patriotism of people who have taken honorable positions on contested questions and demands a uniformity of background and view in government service from which no administration would benefit," read the letter, which was organized by the Brookings Institution's Benjamin Wittes and signed by David Rivkin, Lee Casey, and Philip Zelikow, among others.
Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman Carl Levin agreed with Graham, and told The Cable that the ad was symbolic of the type of rhetoric put forth by the Cheney-Kristol group.
"They probably would have called President John Adams a terrorist too, because he defended the British soldiers who killed Americans at Bunker Hill," said Levin. "I don't think folks like that will stop at anything to attack the president and Democrats. I don't know if there are any limits to their venom.... I haven't seen any."
Even senior Republicans who agreed with the ad's criticism of Holder's appointment of the lawyers said that the ad was beyond the pale.
"An ad that says it's the Department of Jihad is over the top and unjustified," said Jeff Sessions, R-AL, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Still, Sessions said he agreed with the thrust of the ad and its overall criticisms of Holder.
"Out of the hundreds of thousands of lawyers in America, they picked seven that cut their teeth defending terrorists and put them in key positions," Sessions said. "Yes, you can defend criminals and work at the department of justice, but it says something to me about why they've been so wrong on this issue."
Terror suspects are entitled to good, strong legal representation, Sessions added.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, said that McConnell has not and would not use the terms "al Qaeda 7" or "Department of Jihad."
Meanwhile, Graham is still working with the White House to come up with some way to build congressional-executive agreement on the handling of suspects who the administration may want to detain indefinitely without a charge, perhaps through new legislation.
"My latest is what I've been doing for four years, trying to find legal infrastructure that will help in court, meet the needs of justice, and deal with unique issues," such as what to do about cases for suspects who have successfully filed for writs of habeas corpus but who still are too dangerous to release, Graham said.
Levin said he was not directly involved in the negotiations over detainee policy but planned to meet with the White House soon. He said he wasn't sure if the president needed any additional specific legal authorities to hold prisoners indefinitely, beyond what's provided for in the Geneva Conventions.
"I leave it up to the executive branch to decide where people are tried and what they're tried for," Levin said.
Sessions said he was not on board with Graham's proposal and Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain, R-AZ, said the ball was in the administration's court, not Congress's.
"You have to have an overall policy," said McCain. "They have not developed one; they have been all over the map."
But Graham emphasized that there needs to be a legal basis for indefinite detention that can be defended as a policy coming from the American people through Congress, not just as an executive decree.
"If you're worried about what people think about America, you should," Graham said. "We're a nation at war, but we have to fight the war within our value system."
"Neither Senators Graham nor Levin offers any defense for Eric Holder's attempts to stonewall the public as to the identities of the al Qaeda lawyers working at the Justice Department," said Michael Goldfarb, advisor and spokesman for the group. "Senator Graham is working with the administration to close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay and Keep America Safe opposes those efforts."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.