Rep. King: Obama recess appointment at Justice Dept. 'absolutely shocking'

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the incoming chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, has angrily denounced President Obama’s recess appointment of James Cole as deputy attorney general.

King called Cole’s appointment “absolutely shocking” and said it might be one of the worst appointments Obama will make during his presidency.

“I strongly oppose the recess appointment of James Cole to lead the national security team at the Department of Justice,” King said in a statement. “The appointment indicates that the Obama Administration continues to try to implement its dangerous policies of treating Islamic terrorism as a criminal matter.”

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The harsh words demonstrate the deep divisions that exist between some of the president’s policies and Republican positions on terrorism issues and serve as a harbinger of the inevitable clashes to come between the GOP chairmen of key national security committees and the administration.

Cole has advocated for the use of civilian trials in prosecuting terrorism suspects, and King views the appointment as a sign of the administration’s intent to continue to try detainees through the criminal justice system rather than through military tribunals, which most Republicans prefer.

King said that Cole’s appointment is exactly the wrong message to be sending to U.S. citizens, especially after the public pushback on Obama’s attempts to close the Guantanamo Bay prison facility in Cuba. During the lame-duck session, Congress attached language to the $1.1 trillion spending resolution to keep the government funded next year that would prevent Obama from spending any funds to try terrorism suspects in civilian court instead of military commissions.

The resolution essentially prevents the closing of the facility in Guantanamo Bay. Several New York Democrats, along with a vocal group of GOP lawmakers, earlier this year also expressed deep concern about Justice Department plans to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-declared 9/11 mastermind, in federal civilian court in New York. 

“After the American people, and the Democratic Congress, unequivocally rejected President Obama’s plans to close Guantanamo and transfer admitted 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed to the United States for trial in federal civilian court, I find it absolutely shocking that President Obama would appoint someone who has diminished the 9/11 terrorist attacks by comparing them to the drug trade and who believes that a civilian courtroom is the appropriate venue for 9/11 trials,” King continued.

“This may be one of the worst appointments by President Obama during his presidency,” King added, referring to Cole as a “left-wing ideologue who places terrorists in the same categories as drug peddlers."

King was referring to an op-ed Cole penned for the Legal Times on Sept. 9, 2002, in which Cole said 9/11 should be treated as a criminal act of terrorism against a civilian population instead of as an act of war requiring military tribunals.

“[T]he attorney general is not a member of the military fighting a war — he is a prosecutor fighting crime,” Cole wrote. “For all the rhetoric about war, the Sept. 11 attacks were criminal acts of terrorism against a civilian population, much like the terrorist acts of Timothy McVeigh in blowing up the federal building in Oklahoma City, or of Omar Abdel-Rahman in the first effort to blow up the World Trade Center.

“The criminals responsible for these horrible acts were successfully tried and convicted under our criminal justice system, without the need for special procedures that altered traditional due process rights.”

The editorial also compared the attacks to the drug trade, organized crimes, rape, child abuse and murder, saying all are horrible.

“Our country has faced many forms of devastating crime, including the scourge of the drug trade, the reign of organized crime, and countless acts of rape, child abuse, and murder,” he wrote. “The acts of Sept. 11 were horrible, but so are these other things.”

Cole’s nomination to the second-ranking post at the Department of Justice had been held up over objections from Republicans, who also raised concerns over his tenure as an independent monitor of insurance giant AIG between 2005 and 2009. The federal government bailed out the company in 2008.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) attempted to confirm Cole by unanimous consent during the lame-duck session, but GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) objected.

While the recess appointment allows Obama to fill a key spot at the Department of Justice, Cole will have to be nominated again and confirmed by the end of the next session of Congress. That could be tougher, given the larger GOP minority in the next Senate.

Cole is a partner at the firm Bryan Cave LLP and previously served as a Justice Department official between 1979 and 1992. He worked on former President Bill Clinton's transition team in 1992.

— Jordan Fabian contributed to this report.