HARTFORD, Conn. — The man leading the inquiry into the origins of the Russia probe is no stranger to politically sensitive investigations.
In his 41-year career as a prosecutor, John Durham, the U.S. attorney for Connecticut, has led investigations into the FBI's cozy relationship with Boston mobsters such as James "Whitey" Bulger and the CIA's use of tough interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects.
Former colleagues and defense lawyers who have squared off against him say he is unlikely to be concerned about any fallout from his findings during this new assignment.
"Whoever put him in charge, I hope they didn't expect him to be a yes man and follow the script, because he will follow the evidence relentlessly and call it as he sees it," said Hugh Keefe, a defense attorney in New Haven.
Attorney General William Barr picked Durham in May to examine what led the U.S. to open a counterintelligence investigation of President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign. That investigation led to special counsel Robert Mueller's probe of Russian interference in the election.
Last week, it was disclosed that Durham’s administrative review has become a criminal inquiry, giving him powers to empanel a grand jury, compel witnesses to testify and bring criminal charges.
Durham is looking into whether the surveillance and intelligence-gathering methods used during the counterintelligence investigation were legal and appropriate.
But the parameters of his investigation have never been defined for the public, making it unclear what problems or misconduct from the early days of the Russia probe he is searching for.
It's also not clear why his appointment by Barr was necessary, given that the Justice Department's inspector general has spent the past year and a half examining actions by agents and prosecutors in opening the Russia investigation, including potential political bias. That report is expected in the coming weeks.
Durham's inquiry is under intense political scrutiny. The investigation of the investigators has riled congressional Democrats, who say the Justice Department has lost its independence and become a vehicle for Trump's political revenge.
"President Trump and Attorney General Barr are politically weaponizing the Department of Justice — threatening a return to its darkest days," said Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. "Targeting law enforcers as enemies — simply because they have the spine to stand up to corrupt power — is deeply dangerous, indeed chilling. This line must not be crossed."
Trump, who is facing a House impeachment inquiry over his dealings with Ukraine, has said that there was political bias inside the FBI and that the Russia probe was part of a "witch hunt" to discredit him and his presidency. The president recently said he expects Durham's review to reveal "really bad things."
"John's got himself caught in a very difficult situation," said Stanley Twardy, a former Connecticut U.S. attorney who was once Durham's boss. "No matter what he does, he's going to have a good part of the public damning him. But the great thing about John is he's not going to care about that."
Twardy said Durham wouldn't hesitate to speak out if the findings of his investigation were mischaracterized, as Barr was accused of doing to Mueller.
Durham, 69, is a Republican who was nominated U.S. attorney by Trump and confirmed by the Senate in 2018. As in nearly all cases, Durham declined to comment on his investigation.
In Boston, Durham led a task force that investigated the FBI's relationship with mobsters. The probe led to the conviction of FBI agent John Connelly, who was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison for protecting Bulger and other informants, including tipping them off to upcoming indictments.
In 2008, Durham was tapped by President George W. Bush's administration to investigate the CIA's destruction of videotapes it had made of its interrogations of terrorism suspects. A year later, under a directive from President Barack Obama's attorney general, Eric Holder, Durham expanded the probe to examine the agency's treatment of detainees.
He determined in both cases that criminal charges were not warranted.
Durham specifically looked for potential crimes in the deaths of two detainees, including one who was shackled to a cold concrete wall in a secret CIA prison.
During his career, Durham also has taken down mobsters, gang members and former Connecticut Gov. John Rowland, who resigned in 2004 amid a corruption investigation, was convicted and served 10 months in prison.
Kenneth Gray, a former FBI agent in Connecticut who retired in 2012, said Durham was an obvious pick to investigate the origins of the Russia probe because of his history leading difficult, sensitive investigations of the government.
“He is very, very good at getting to the bottom of things,” Gray said. “He’s very detail-oriented, and he’s very dogged about getting what he needs to get the answers.”