Top Congressional Researcher on Afghanistan Fired

The top congressional official who oversees research on foreign policy and defense issues, including the war in Afghanistan, has been fired from his job after publishing a newspaper op-ed criticizing the Obama administration's recent decision about bringing Guantánamo detainees to trial.  

Morris Davis, the assistant director of the Congressional Research Service's foreign policy and defense division and the former chief prosecutor of the U.S. military commissions, says that the American Civil Liberties Union plans to challenge his dismissal in a letter to CRS's longtime director, Daniel Mulhollan, on Friday. The letter will contend that Mulhollan violated Davis's First Amendment rights to free speech by firing him and will threaten the service with a lawsuit if he is not reinstated, says an ACLU spokeswoman.

"The irony is we're located in the Madison Building," says Davis, referring to the office building across the street from the Capitol where CRS is headquartered. "It's named for the man who wrote the First Amendment."

Asked for comment, Janine D'Addario, a spokesman for CRS and for its director, says that "as a matter of professional courtesy and out of respect for the confidentiality" of the staff, "CRS will not comment on personnel-related matters." 

But another CRS official (who asked not to be identified because of the issue's sensitivity) confirms Davis's firing and says it reflects persistent tensions between Mulhollan and some members of his staff over how far they can go in making public comments or publishing articles that might prove controversial with members of Congress. Another CRS researcher got into a similar dispute and was transferred to another job after publishing a newspaper op-ed criticizing congressional oversight of the Iraq War, the official notes. 

"The director has a paranoid fear that somebody somewhere is going to say something"  that draws criticism from members of Congress, says the CRS official. "The director is very strict about us giving out our personal views or taking a position on issues."

Much like the Congressional Budget Office and the General Accounting Office, CRS is a critical player on Capitol Hill, providing members of Congress with reams of reports and analyses that it touts on its Web site as "objective and nonpartisan."

Davis was hired last December as the chief of one of CRS's five key divisions, overseeing 95 policy analysts and other experts on all matters relating to national defense (including all matters relating to Aghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq), foreign policy, and international trade issues.

But Davis, who resigned as the chief prosecutor for the U.S. military commission in 2007 over disputes about the fairness of the process, did not have specific responsibility for research on Guantánamo issues, the subject of his op-ed. Those are handled by another CRS unit, the Law division.

Davis says his problems with his boss arose on the evening of Nov. 10, after he alerted Mulhollan in an e-mail that The Wall Street Journal was about to publish an op-ed he had written about Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to try the accused 9/11 conspirators in federal court while bringing others, including the alleged architect of the U.S.S. Cole bombing, to trial before revived military commissions. Davis argued in the piece that this will establish "a dangerous legal double standard" that will give some detainees—those who are tried in federal court—more legal rights and protections than those brought before military commissions.

At the same time, Davis alerted Mulhollan that The Washington Post would be publishing a letter to the editor from him the next day taking President Bush's former attorney general Michael Mukasey to task for publicly criticizing Holder for trying any detainees at all in federal court. In the letter, Davis accused Mukasey of "fear-mongering worthy of former Vice President Dick Cheney" for warning about the security concerns of trying the 9/11 defendants in federal court. The letter identified Davis the same way as the Journal op-ed did, as the former "chief prosecutor of the military commissions." But neither publication made any mention of his current affiliation with CRS.

Shortly after he sent the e-mail, Davis says, he got an angry phone call from Mulhollan in which the CRS director asked him, "What the hell did I think I was doing? How would Congress react to this?" At a later 30-minute meeting in Mulhollan's office, Davis says the CRS director demanded that he apologize and admit he was wrong for going public on the military commission issue. But Davis says he refused, specifically citing CRS regulations that permit officials to speak and write on areas outside the scope of their official duties. (CRS spokeswoman D'Addario says that, for the same reasons that he wouldn't comment on Davis's dismissal, the director will not comment about "conversations with individual employees.")  

But Davis says that Mulhollan, citing a Wikipedia search he had conducted, had concluded that some of the reports that Davis's division had conducted had indeed mentioned "military commissions," and that therefore, Mulhollan was taking "disciplinary action"—specifically dismissing him, effective Dec. 21, when his one-year probationary period as a CRS employee expired. (Davis says the Wikipedia search was out of context and that the references to military commissions actually involved matters in Pakistan, not the United States.)

Davis says that he was later told that Mulhollan, in a meeting with other CRS staff members, said that he had gotten complaints from "across the street" over Davis's articles, a reference to members of Congress. "He doesn't want to see anybody from CRS in the headlines," says Davis about his boss.  

Making clear that she does not want to refer to anything specifically related to Davis, CRS spokeswoman D'Addario says that CRS internal regulations for employees specifically say that any outside articles they publish must "make it clear" they are expressing their personal views and that they do not represent the views of CRS. Employees also must avoid "any appearance of conflict of interest, especially when they are writing about controversial matters" and that their outside articles must confirm to CRS's standards for its reports as "objective, balanced and authoritative."

Whether or not Davis conformed to those standards in publishing The Wall Street Journal op-ed and the letter to the editor, his dismissal has been the subject of considerable "hallway conversation" within CRS, says the CRS official familiar with the matter. While Davis unquestionably had as much expertise as anybody on the subject of military commissions, he may have been "pushing the envelope" by publishing his views in the newspaper, the official says.

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