WASHINGTON – The Justice Department on Wednesday honored some of its employees behind the complex legal efforts to keep America safe, but the public ceremony raised more questions about what they did than answered them.
Call it the Black-Ops Oscars, where more than 35 people were presented awards in just less than an hour.
"We're sorry we can't say more about it," Assistant Attorney General Lisa Monaco said, as she recognized attorneys Benjamin Huebner and Joshua Raines for work they did on a "highly classified project affecting national security."
"Given the nature of the work, I won't be able to more fully and completely describe some of these accomplishments," said Monaco who heads the Justice Department's National Security Division, a section created in 2006 to combat terrorism and other national security threats.
The division employs 340 people with an $88 million budget. Because of the nature of the cases, attorneys often have to work with members of the intelligence community to come up with ways to present evidence at a trial without jeopardizing national security. And in many cases, attorneys have to find ways to prosecute a case without any sensitive intelligence information at all.
"The bad guys keep you very busy," Deputy Attorney General James Cole said.
An attorney with the division's office of intelligence, Shelly Goldstone, was awarded for his role in "several highly sensitive, fast-paced espionage investigations involving issues of utmost importance to U.S. national security."
After presenting Goldstone with his award, Monaco said she told Attorney General Eric Holder — also on stage with her during the ceremony — "that was one of those super-secret awards that we couldn't say much about."
Others were recognized for their roles in cases in which people were accused of providing support to terrorists, plotting to kill and injure people overseas, and attempting to sell top secret information about the nation's space program to the Israelis. But little was offered about what exactly the award recipients did.
Trial attorney Alamdar Hamdani was awarded for his work in the case of a Somali man accused of being a senior member of the terrorist organization, al-Shabab. The man, Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, was captured overseas and interrogated by intelligence officials aboard a U.S. warship for two months, offering what Obama administration officials described as important intelligence. After the interrogation was complete, the FBI stepped in and began the questioning from scratch in a way that could be used in federal court.
That case showed that the Obama administration is sticking by its plan to use civilian courts to prosecute terrorists, a strategy that was successful for years under then President George W. Bush but which has drawn fire from Republicans since President Barack Obama took office.