Thursday, March 29, 2007

Accountability and the Renegade Executive

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Scott Horton

Normally, I begin my remarks by saying "Ladies and Gentlemen." But here I'm not sure that's quite the right salutation. On my way down from New York to Charlotte to Memphis to Oxford, Mississippi today, passing over the freshly verdant Appalachians and then down the valley of the Tennessee River to the Mississippi Delta, I read the first chapters of William Faulkner's novel, Sanctuary - it takes placed in a bucolic college down named Jefferson - a town which is remarkably like this one. And there towards the end of Chapter III, I ran across this scrap:

"The Virginia gentleman… told us at supper that night about how they had taught him to drink like a gentleman. Put a beetle in alcohol, and you have a scarab; put a Mississippian in alcohol, and you have a gentleman -"

So, as it's still too early in the evening to speak of "gentlemen" here in Mississippi, I'll just say "friends."

America today is in the grips of a scandal surrounding the machinery of justice, but it is a scandal being played out on more fronts than the mass media seems to realize. Indeed, in the end it turns on the concept of justice, not just about the bureaucracy that supposedly administers it.

Eight US attorneys were dismissed by Alberto Gonzales on prodding from Karl Rove. We now know the fateful decision was taken on December 7 (an ironic day, as FDR said, "a day that will live in infamy"). As Gonzales and his deputies Paul J. McNulty and William Moschella trotted out various and contradictory after-the-fact rationalizations for this decision, it has become increasingly clear that the dismissals were politically inspired. Indeed, in the testimony that he has submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee within the last two hours, Gonzales' chief of staff acknowledges as much.

The prosecutors selected for discharge come from "battleground states" which will be key to the 2008 presidential election: New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, Michigan, Washington and Arkansas. This is no coincidence. Shortly after the 2006 Congressional election, Karl Rove, licking his wounds over a serious defeat, indicated in a speech to Republican lawyers that the public perception of scandal surrounding GOP law-makers was key to that loss. Rove promised he would do something about it. Within a few days, a move to cashier these prosecutors was underway. It is tied to a plan to use their offices to go after Democrats, whether a basis existed or not, and to pursue a voter suppression program focused on prospective Democrats. In other words, it's pure politics. Not high politics in the sense that Aristotle uses the term. But the crude gutter politics of the partisan hack. This sort of politics is not the exclusive province of one party. But over the last years, one party has exercised a monopoly on political power, and this appears to have led to a particularly virulent strain of political hackery.

Standing alone, this incident would be cause for grave concern. But it's just one aspect of a far broader crisis in which our country is enmeshed. The crisis has its start in the decision to introduce torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment - in contravention of 230 years of US military tradition, stretching back to George Washington's order after the battle of Trenton. Gonzales had a key role in this process as well, backed up by Cheney's chief-of-staff, David Addington and the now ever-present John Yoo. They tell us that they did this to insure that the president, as commander-in-chief, would have all the tools at his disposal that he might need to fight a war against terror. But if we strip the varnish off that, there are unmistakably unsavory elements underneath: one is a recognition that torture is a crime, and the second is a desire to enlist it into the president's arsenal notwithstanding what the law says.

A former president of the Argentine bar, with whom I spoke two years ago, told me that his experience with torture in Argentina's "Dirty War" under a military dictatorship had been very clear. The dictator wanted torture as a talisman. It would show that the military rulers were above the law - subject to none of the restraints that marked the rule-of-law state. No one was under the illusion that torture techniques would actually get any useful intelligence. On the other hand, it would instill fear, and that was useful. He spoke to me with some conviction: the legal profession must oppose the introduction of torture, he said. In the end you will learn this is not about interrogation practices, it is about dictatorship, about tyranny. The experience of Argentina and Chile backs him up. Is the experience of America different? America is not governed by a military junta, of course. Nor can the brutality of technique and number of victims of the "Dirty War" yet be compared with the dark underside of the war on terror. But it is striking that most of the abusive techniques used by the Argentine junta were adopted and introduced in what President Bush has called the "program." This includes waterboarding, which the Argentinians called el submarino, the cold cell (or hypothermia), long-time standing and sleep deprivation in excess of two days. Nevertheless, this is a question we all should ponder.

The Argentine lawyer's remarks reminded me immediately of what Gonzales wrote in a memorandum on January 25, 2002 - he speculated that the newly fashioned plans for the war on terror might lead future prosecutors to consider war crimes charges. Gonzales suggested that if Bush declared that the Geneva Conventions did not apply, it would be more difficult for a prosecutor to go after the authors of these new policies.

It's chilling to consider that this was written by a man destined to serve as the nation's chief law enforcement officer. But it explains, perhaps, why Bush gave Gonzales the nick name "Fredo" - the name of the younger, loyal, but mentally less adept son of the Godfather crime family, the Corleones.

It started with torture but it moved swiftly beyond this. For instance, to a decision to introduce a system of torture-by-proxy through extraordinary rendition. Gonzales also gave this program, which has its origins back in an anti-drug kingpin program launched by Clinton, the green light. And now more than thirty American public servants - CIA officers and military for the most part - stand under indictment in Italy and Germany with counts of assault, kidnapping and other felonies; these are all dedicated public servants performing an official program. The blame for what happened doesn't rest with them, or at least not entirely. It rests with the people who formed the policies that they implemented. Our reputation around the world is a tatters. And nations who want to cooperate with us in a war against terror, and whose support the United States badly needs, repeatedly find they can't do so. If they do, they will be collaborating with a nation that tortures, and they aren't prepared to sacrifice their values the way the Bush administration has sacrificed ours.

Recently a friend of mine who works with the Afghan Government shared with me some intelligence the Afghans had gathered from a young man apprehended in connection with an attack using an improvised explosive device. The man had fled as a refugee to Pakistan. There he was seized by the Pakistani Inter Service Intelligence (a close collaborator of the CIA) and told that unless he participated in a planned bombing attack on NATO forces in the Afghan south, the Pakistanis would turn him over to the Americans, he would be taken to Guantánamo and tortured there for years on end. He agreed to participate. Interestingly he was not the only young Afghan to be captured with an account like this. Is the account true? The Afghans are convinced it is, and US intelligence apparently has credited it as well. So there you have it: come full circle. The image of Gitmo used to recruit people to perform acts of terror against us.

Gonzales also gave the go-ahead for surveillance that violated FISA, a federal criminal statute. Indeed, Newsweek gave us a fascinating insider's account of how all this went down at Justice. Then Attorney General John Ashcroft was out in the hospital for a gallbladder operation. James Comey, his deputy, said "no," he couldn't possibly authorize this. Neither, apparently, would Jack Goldsmith, the man responsible for the Attorney General's legal opinions. Gonzales had to find alternative means to get this through. And in short order Ashcroft, Comey and Goldsmith were gone from Justice and Gonzales arrived with a new team of enablers. Gonzales gave evasive or false testimony about much of this during the confirmation process, which earned him a distinction that is, as far as I know, unprecedented for a US attorney general. He enjoys such a reputation for "truthiness" (as Stephen Colbert calls it, namely something which has the outward appearance of truth, but is, in fact, a lie) that he is not permitted to speak before the Judiciary Committee without being formally sworn in. And this last weekend, three senior Judiciary Committee Republicans - Specter, Graham and Hagel, were openly discussing Gonzales' truthiness problems on talk shows.

Where once our nation had the debate of Jeffersons, Madisons, Websters and Clays, now we have the Beltway punditry - the Fred Hiatts, Chris Matthews and Norah O'Donnells - a vacuous chattering class which is the Muzak of our political discourse. They tell us that all of these scandals - the cashiering of US attorneys, the surveillance, the introduction of torture and torture-by-proxy - this is all just politics. Don't get yourself worked up. In fact, pay no attention. Time to move on.

Don't believe them. This is about the country we live in and the country we will pass to posterity. It's about fidelity to the values on which this country was founded. It is about the rule of law and accountability. Our Founding Fathers had faith in mankind, but also a very real sense of man's corruptibility. "If men were angels," James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51, then we should have no need of government. But men are no angels, and politicians may in fact be closer to what Kant called a race of devils. The genius of the tripartite system of checks and balances that Madison and the other Founding Fathers created was its use of the quest for power latent in so many of us (and especially in politicians) as a brake against itself.

But in the last six years this brake has been dismantled and removed. There has been a fundamental shift in the power structure - a sweeping reallocation of power from the Congress and Courts to the Executive. Much of this has occurred secretly, behind closed doors, as a sort of constitutional coup d'état.

It's telling that the current scandal began with a secret change in the Patriot Act. Unbeknownst to those who should have run the process, including Senator Specter, then the chair of the Judiciary Committee, a provision was slipped in at the last minute giving the Attorney General a direct power of appointment of US Attorneys, skirting the advice and consent of the Senate. This provision was smuggled into the bill by a young legislative assistant who was promptly appointed, at 34 years of age, as the US Attorney in Utah. He was a friend of Kyle P. Sampson, Gonzales' chief of staff and the man who stage-managed the removal of the eight US attorneys. Sampson, who is going to become a household name in the next few days, has a nickname, "Little Rove," both for his similarity to and friendship with Karl Rove. But the point here is that the Senate should have exercised a brake by looking into the entire process, and through legislative legerdemain that was stopped.

Bismarck famously said that with legislation, like with sausage, it was perhaps best not to know what went into it. But that reflects the Bismarckian democracy, which in the end, wasn't much democracy at all. As for our process, we have Madison's admonitions not to legislate in secret, a charge that Congress has rarely lived up to, but has miserably breached these last few years.

This week at colleges and law schools around the country, there is a special focus on what is underway at Guantánamo, or Gitmo as my Navy friends call it. Newspapers today are reporting on the first hearings held in the military commissions process. Last weekend, the New York Times informed us that in his first weeks in office Bob Gates, the man who replaced Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense in December, put together a comprehensive plan to shut down the Gitmo detention centers and move the entire operation to the United States. This initiative was immediately supported by Condoleezza Rice. Gates and Rice argued that the name "Guantánamo" was now held in such disrepute around the world that no one would ever associate what transpired there with any notion of justice. Gates, it seems, thought that when Bush said he wanted to shut down Gitmo, he really meant it. But he quickly learned that it's dangerous to assume Bush means what he says, especially when he's talking about Gitmo and the war on terror. Alberto Gonzales and Dick Cheney stepped in very quickly to quash the Gates plan. Gonzales said that bringing the detainees to the US could have unpleasant legal consequences for the administration.

Indeed it would. It would greatly up the chances that the detainees would be able to challenge their treatment in a federal court, before real judges, who would apply real law - starting with the US Constitution and continuing on to the Geneva Conventions. And it would open the prospect that the American people would learn, perhaps in some detail, exactly what was done to those detainees. Rumsfeld called them the "worst of the worst" but we know thanks to a Seton Hall study that roughly 80% of them were picked up by Afghan and Pakistani bounty hunters, and, in the assessment of both FBI and CIA teams that initially screened them, had no business being there. Gates and Rice were correct when they offered that no one would associate these proceedings with justice. That's because they bear no resemblance to justice, as it has traditionally been dispensed in US courts. Nor do they bear much resemblance to the high and honorable standards that have been established under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Manual on Courts-Martial. These proceedings are loaded from the outset. Defendants are not permitted counsel of their choosing, and defense counsel have been subjected to a torrent of abuse and mistreatment. Evidentiary rules are weighted in favor of the admission of coerced testimony, including torture-induced testimony, secret evidence, and evidence which cannot be confronted or properly crossexamined. A fair-minded judge might still get to a just result, but the rules the Pentagon dictated, and the shameful provisions the Congress wrote, will make it perilously difficult to get there.

Dwight David Eisenhower, the last of our nation's great warrior presidents, said "Though force can protect in emergency, only justice, fairness, consideration and co-operation can finally lead men to the dawn of eternal peace." He reflected the received wisdom of the nation that won World War II and then turned with swift justice to the work of the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals. Through this process, America demonstrated it had a powerful thirst for justice. It vindicated America's cause in the war. It exorcised the demon of fascism which had laid hold of the heart of Europe. And it produced a new world in which the vanquished foes, Germany, Italy and Japan, emerged as America's allies for the coming generations. Eisenhower's faith in the power of justice, pursued swiftly and with a firm sense of fairness, was borne out. Wielded effectively, justice is indeed among the most potent tools in our arsenal.

And this provides reason for us to ask: Why is this administration afraid of justice the way our fathers and their fathers understood it? Why do we wait five and a half years after 9/11 to witness the first sessions of the military commissions? And why do we then witness a confused tumult which embarrasses us in the eyes of the entire world, just as Gates suggested it would?

In the end the turn against traditions and values has been about the aggrandizement of power in the executive. It has been about arrogant avoidance of accountability. And it has been about that principle that lies most at the heart of the development of the Anglo-American legal tradition, namely that no man is above the law, not even the king or the man who would be king. As with so many things of recent times, it resonates of England in the seventeenth century, and reminds us of the famous words uttered by Thomas Fuller: "Be ye ever so high, still the law is above thee." But the mantra of the current administration is to frustrate all efforts to hold it to account, to grant itself immunity for its crimes, to strip courts of jurisdiction, including even the great writ. On each of these points, the conduct of the Bush presidency mirrors that of Charles I, the monarch whose conduct provoked Fuller's statement.

Americans have inherited a great legacy, one that embraces the worth and dignity of all human beings, the promise of equal justice for all before the law, a principle of limited, carefully divided and counter-posed governmental powers, with full accountability to a people in whom sovereignty rests. The answer to our current problems lies in our past, and in fidelity to the best that America has brought forth. But it requires citizens to be alert and to see what passes before them. And it requires us to take our heritage seriously.

Remarks delivered at the University of Mississippi School of Law, Oxford, MS, Mar. 28, 2007

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