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Mukasey's Career Steeped in National Security

Michael Mukasey speaks after President George W. Bush nominates him for attorney general.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
Michael Mukasey speaks after President George W. Bush nominates him for attorney general.

The career of Michael Mukasey, President Bush's pick to succeed Alberto Gonzales as attorney general, is inextricably tied to national security.

Mukasey, 66, was nominated to the federal bench in 1987 by President Reagan. During his tenure on the bench, Mukasey earned a reputation as a no-nonsense law-and-order judge, steeped in the intricacies of national security.

For 19 years, he presided over a series of high-profile cases, including the 1993 prosecution of "the blind sheikh" Omar Abdel Rahman, whom he sentenced to life in prison for plotting to blow up several New York City landmarks including the World Trade Center. In the 1996 sentencing of Abdel Rahman and co-conspirators, Mukasey accused Abdel Rahman of trying to spread death "in a scale unseen in this country since the Civil War."

Mukasey's Manhattan courthouse was located just blocks from the twin towers that were eventually destroyed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Around-the-Clock Protection

Born in the Bronx in 1941, New York is in Mukasey's blood. He earned an undergraduate degree from Columbia University and worked for a time as a reporter. Mukasey left journalism to pursue a career in law — attending Yale Law School.

Early in his legal career, he worked as a prosecutor in Manhattan, serving under then U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani. The two New Yorkers remain close; Mukasey and his son are both legal advisers to Giuliani.

At times, Mukasey's professional life has spilled over into the personal. He and his wife have had around-the-clock protection from U.S. marshals for the past eight years due to the nature of his cases — an unusual but not unprecedented need for federal judges.

Mukasey's writings provide a window into his views on sensitive national-security issues. Commenting on the recent trial of Jose Padilla — the so-called "dirty bomber" — Mukasey argued that the guilty verdict was no cause for celebration.

"Current institutions and statutes are not well suited to even the limited task of supplementing what became, after Sept. 11, 2001, principally a military effort to combat Islamic terrorism," Mukasey wrote in the Wall Street Journal in August. He went on to offer tepid support for the establishment of a separate national security court "staffed by independent, life-tenured judges."

Mukasey is no stranger to the Padilla case. As district judge, he authorized Padilla's arrest in 2002. He backed the White House's view that Padilla could be held as an enemy combatant, although his decision was later overturned on appeal.

In a 2004 article, also in the Wall Street Journal, Mukasey defended the Patriot Act against charges that it eroded civil liberties. In particular, he defended "sneak-and-peek" warrants that allow agents, with court authorization, to enter premises, examine what is there and then leave.

"Here too, the logic seems obvious: If you leave behind a note saying 'Good afternoon, Mr. bin Laden, we were here,' that might betray the existence of an investigation and cause the subjects to flee or destroy evidence," Mukasey wrote.

Mukasey has often ruled in favor of the prosecution but, at times, has sided with the defense. Last year, he ordered a mentally ill woman released from jail after she was charged with helping an Iraqi spy agency under Saddam Hussein. Rebuffing prosecutors who brought the charges, Mukasey said, "there is no indication that [she] ever came close to influencing anyone, or could have."

Throughout his career, Mukasey has expressed strong support for an independent judiciary and bristled at perceived attempts by other branches of government to step on judicial turf.

"They [Congress] can have their blacklist but we have life tenure," he was quoted as saying in a 2003 New York Times article about congressional attempts to monitor whether judges are adhering to mandatory sentencing guidelines.

Support from Both Sides of the Aisle

Commentators on both ends of the political spectrum were quick to praise President Bush's choice to head the beleaguered Justice Department.

"He is intelligent and grasps very difficult issues very quickly," said Mary Jo White, former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, speaking on NPR's Day to Day program. She rejected suggestions that, as attorney general, Mukasey would merely speak for the White House.

"He is his own person. He deals with the issue in front of him in a very hard-nosed intellectual way, and with a ramrod sense of fairness," she said.

Congressional Democrats indicated that Mukasey should expect a fairly easy ride during Senate confirmation hearings.

"While he is certainly conservative, Judge Mukasey seems to be the kind of nominee who would put rule of law first and show independence from the White House, our most important criteria," said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, a senior Democratic member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

If confirmed, one of Mukasey's first challenges will be restoring morale among the Justice Department's 120,000 employees, after the troubled tenure of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Judging by the response of conservative commentators, Mukasey can count on their support during the confirmation process.

"My advice is this: Conservatives should hold their fire, support the president, enjoy watching Chuck Schumer hoist on his own petard, and get ready for a strong attorney general for the rest of the Bush administration," said William Kristol writing in the Weekly Standard.

Sam Buell, a former federal prosecutor, said there is little chance of a "Harriet Miers situation," referring to President Bush's ill-fated attempt to nominate his longtime friend and White House counsel to the Supreme Court.

"Even if there are people who are crying on the right, there will be other people who will say, 'Come on, this guy has a fabulous resume. How could you say he is not an appropriate attorney general?'"

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Weiner
Eric Weiner is a national correspondent for NPR.org. Based in Washington, DC, he writes news and analysis for NPR's website.