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Obama Administration Lawyers ‘Deeply Divided’ Over Enemy Combatants

Posted Mar 29, 2010 7:46 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Obama administration lawyers have pulled back from claims that the president has far-reaching powers to indefinitely detain terrorism suspects, but they have disagreed behind the scenes on the paramaters.

The lawyers are “deeply divided,” the Washington Post reports. “The rift has been most pronounced between top lawyers in the State Department and the Pentagon, though it has also involved conflicts among career Justice Department lawyers and political appointees throughout the national security agencies,” the story says.

On the one side is the State Department’s new top lawyer, former Yale Law School dean Harold Koh, who argues the government has limited powers to designate terrorism suspects as enemy combatants and hold them without trials, the story says. On other side is the Pentagon’s top lawyer, Jeh Johnson, who supports a more flexible view of who can be detained.

The Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder has had to confront its legal position on the issue in two cases. In one, the department told a judge that the president has powers to hold only suspects who were part of al-Qaida or affiliated groups, or those who are “substantial supporters,” the story says.

In a different case, Holder’s Justice Department asked an appeals court to uphold a judge’s ruling allowing detention of a suspect accused of helping people travel to Afghanistan to join al-Qaida.

Much of the debate concerns whether mere al-Qaida supporters can be arrested without trial. The DOJ has avoided that hard question in the travel case by arguing the suspect was effectively part of al-Qaida because of his actions.

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