RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Let's hear now about an argument that's been raging on the opinion pages. It involves nine lawyers, now working at the Justice Department - lawyers who once helped represent terrorism detainees. And when a conservative group targeted them for that, it set off a ruckus, even among some prominent conservatives.
NPR's Ari Shapiro has this anatomy of the dispute.
ARI SHAPIRO: The seed of this controversy was planted at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last November.
Senator CHUCK GRASSLEY (Republican, Iowa): The decision to bring detainees to the United States and afford them civilian trials is highly questionable.
SHAPIRO: Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa asked Attorney General Eric Holder...
Sen. GRASSLEY: Would you provide me and members of the committee with the following information: the names of political appointees in your department who represent detainees or who worked for organizations advocating on their behalf?
SHAPIRO: Holder said he would look into it, and added that people who have been involved in detainee issues recuse themselves at the Justice Department when it's appropriate.
Attorney General ERIC HOLDER (Department of Justice): And people who should not be participating in certain decisions do not do so.
SHAPIRO: Grassley and other Republicans sent a follow-up letter, and last month, the Justice Department responded, saying nine department attorneys were once involved in representing detainees. Grassley named two of them. A group led by conservatives Liz Cheney and Bill Kristol then released this Internet ad.
(Soundbite of Internet ad)
Unidentified Man #1: Who are these government officials? Eric Holder will only name two. Why the secrecy behind the other seven? Whose values do they share? Tell Eric Holder, Americans have a right to know the identity of the Al-Qaeda 7.
SHAPIRO: FOX News identified the seven lawyers and pointed out that the Bush Justice Department also hired lawyers who had represented detainees. A New York Times editorial compared the ad to McCarthyism. And this week, nine former Bush administration officials released a statement calling the ad shameful. They said such attacks undermine the justice system. And yesterday, the country's former top prosecutor added his voice, in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece.
Mr. MICHAEL MUKASEY (Former Attorney General): I'm Michael Mukasey, and I served as attorney general from 2007 to 2009.
SHAPIRO: Mukasey wrote that it is shoddy and dangerous to automatically attack lawyers for the people they represent. He described his views in a phone interview.
Mr. MUKASEY: The risk is that lawyers, as a general matter, will look first before representing clients who need representation and will avoid getting involved in any sort of controversy - in particular, lawyers who want to have a public career. And I think that that will carve out a large number of intelligent, capable people, and all you'll get is people who have devoted their careers to avoiding risk. And we don't want that.
SHAPIRO: Some conservatives defended the ad, such as former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen. He wrote a Washington Post opinion piece this week that he described on FOX.
Mr. MARC THIESSEN (Former Bush Speechwriter): These are legitimate questions. If you heard that mob lawyers were in the Justice Department - or had been hired in the Justice Department to handle mob cases, or drug cartel lawyers had been hired to do drug cases, wouldn't you want to know who they were, what they were working on?
SHAPIRO: Lawyers who still represent detainees see some irony in this whole debate. They have been complaining for a year that attorneys who used to be their allies entered the Obama Justice Department and started making arguments identical to those made by Bush administration lawyers. For example, Neal Katyal won a Supreme Court case on behalf of Guantanamo detainees. Then Katyal went to work for the Justice Department, and detainee lawyers were aghast at the legal positions he took.
Mr. JAMEEL JAFFER (Director, National Security Project, ACLU): If Neal Katyal is supposed to be representing the interests of al-Qaida from inside the Justice Department, he's doing a really awful job of it.
SHAPIRO: This is Jameel Jaffer, who runs the ACLU's National Security Project.
Mr. JAFFER: What Neal Katyal has been arguing is that prisoners held at, for example, Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan shouldn't be allowed to challenge their detention in court. He's been arguing for the continued detention of people held at Guantanamo. So, in my view, he's an unlikely candidate for the Al-Qaeda 7.
SHAPIRO: The Justice Department says politics has overtaken facts and reality. In a statement, a spokesperson said: We will not participate in an attempt to drag people's names through the mud for political purposes.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.