CIA tapes prosecutor gets complex cases

A focused John Durham called well suited to track down corruption in high places

January 13, 2008|By New York Times News Service.

WASHINGTON -- In 1999, John H. Durham, a federal prosecutor based in Connecticut, was assigned to wade into a seemingly impenetrable and corrupt network in Boston, involving police officers, federal agents and organized crime figures.

Sometime this month, Durham will begin a new assignment, this time setting up in Washington to delve into another arena of complexity and concealment, the Central Intelligence Agency.

As the recently named head of the investigation into the CIA's destruction of videotapes of secret interrogations, Durham will again be the outsider trying to apply a straightforward law enforcement template to a complex set of relationships and practices. A career prosecutor, he had been dispatched to Boston years ago by a Democratic attorney general, Janet Reno. This month, he was summoned to Washington by a Republican attorney general, Michael B. Mukasey.

Michael Clark, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent who worked with him for years in Connecticut, said that Durham's experiences in unraveling the corrupt relationships in Massachusetts as well as in convicting public officials in Connecticut, demonstrate why his methods may be well suited to his new task.

"John's style is dogged and focused," Clark said. "Because he is so intent on following the facts, he refused to become involved in any political dimension or detour." He said Durham was undeterred by "certain roadblocks people wanted to put in the way."

Durham also headed a task force that compiled a list of impressive accomplishments and convictions, including its disclosure that some FBI officials had allowed some informants to commit murder and flourish in their racketeering enterprises in exchange for information about other mobsters.

Durham has been and remains, by all accounts, a man of moderation and some modesty. During his assignment in Boston, he relinquished the title of first assistant in the U.S. attorney's New Haven office, demoting himself, because he was spending so much time away from Connecticut.

The assignment of Durham to the investigation by Mukasey signaled that the Justice Department had concluded, at least on a preliminary basis, that CIA officers, possibly along with other government officials, may have committed criminal acts in their handling of tapes that recorded the interrogations in 2002 of two operatives of al-Qaida.

The tapes were destroyed in 2005 and had never been provided to the courts or to the special commission examining the Sept. 11 attacks.

Mukasey was praised for his choice of Durham, although some Democrats in Congress were disappointed that he will have less expansive authority than a special counsel.

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