Experience combating violent extremism is an asset — not a disqualifying liability — as candidates are considered to become Minnesota's next U.S. attorney.
This should be obvious after the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol attack and FBI Director Christopher Wray's recent warning that domestic terrorism is "metastasizing." The state's next top federal prosecutor needs a deep understanding of this grave threat and the proven ability to put perpetrators in prison.
While finalists for U.S. attorney's posts typically are not made public, the names of contenders were apparently leaked to the Sahan Journal, then confirmed by the Star Tribune. They are Surya Saxena and Lola Velazquez-Aguilu, both former assistant federal prosecutors, and Andy Luger, who held the job from 2014 to 2017.
A change in presidential administration generally leads to turnover among U.S. attorneys, and Erica MacDonald, a Trump administration appointee, resigned in late February. Luger left after Trump's election.
All three candidates for the job under President Joe Biden have strong qualifications. While the Star Tribune Editorial Board is not endorsing a candidate, we feel compelled to counter some of the ill-considered attacks on Luger and his record in the office.
As U.S. attorney, Luger acted sensibly to protect the public from violent ideologues who posed a threat at that time. ISIS and other foreign terrorist organizations were trying and sometimes succeeding in recruiting young men from Minnesota's East African immigrant communities. Nine were ultimately convicted after prosecution by the U.S. attorney's office.
Luger's work also made Minnesota a pioneer in community-based programs to thwart terror recruiting through better-funded opportunities for education, recreation and youth sports. His commendable outreach to local imams and other Somali-American leaders helped build support. But some critics who offered few solutions contended that Luger's approach stigmatized young people or was an effort to spy on them.
Some of the same critics now oppose Luger's potential reappointment. Last week, members of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said they had collected "nearly 100" signatures on a petition asking the search committee not to pick Luger because of his record in the office. And in a story posted on the Sahan Journal, an online news source covering Minnesota's immigrant communities, activist Burhan Israfael said what Luger accomplished was "devastating."
Objections like this gloss over the public safety threat terror recruitment posed. Critics also fail to understand that the skills that Luger developed are now needed against white supremacists, anti-Semitism and other violent ideologies. His tenure as U.S. attorney, and his work since then in private practice leading his law firm's hate crimes initiative, demonstrate his abilities.
"Andy Luger is an experienced prosecutor who cares deeply about countering violent extremism while building relationships with the community," said Mary McCord, executive director and legal director at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center.
"This is not always an easy task, whether the subject is violent Islamist extremism or violent white supremacist extremism, but I am confident that Andy would approach the current threat with urgency, perseverance and respect for civil rights."
Luger has developed a tough-but-fair reputation for his work investigating police practices. In 2009, he co-authored a scathing report outlining rampant abuses by the former Metro Gang Strike Force. In 2016, he decided there was insufficient evidence to pursue federal civil rights charges against the two Minneapolis police officers who fatally shot Jamar Clark.
Both decisions may have cost Luger allies in the community, but his willingness to make tough calls showed all-too-rare leadership under pressure.
U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith are leading a search committee to fill the post, and a decision is expected this spring. The leak and public criticism of Luger during this process were unusual. Luger, Saxena and Velazquez-Aguilu all deserve fair treatment and careful consideration as the evaluations continue.