As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Monday, April 06, 2009

Republicans Engage In Another Stick-Up?

Yesterday I wrote about John Brennan's efforts to conceal additional classified memos from the Bush Administration from the Office of Legal Counsel, offering their authorization and direction of specific techniques of brutal treatment and torture. Today Scott Horton claims that the issue is more one of blackmail:

Senate Republicans are now privately threatening to derail the confirmation of key Obama administration nominees for top legal positions by linking the votes to suppressing critical torture memos from the Bush era. A reliable Justice Department source advises me that Senate Republicans are planning to “go nuclear” over the nominations of Dawn Johnsen as chief of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice and Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh as State Department legal counsel if the torture documents are made public. The source says these threats are the principal reason for the Obama administration’s abrupt pullback last week from a commitment to release some of the documents. A Republican Senate source confirms the strategy. It now appears that Republicans are seeking an Obama commitment to safeguard the Bush administration’s darkest secrets in exchange for letting these nominations go forward [...]

The release of the memos that the Senate Republicans want to suppress was cleared by Attorney General Eric Holder and White House counsel Greg Craig, and then was stopped when “all hell broke loose” inside the Obama administration, according to an article by Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff. Newsweek attributes internal opposition to disclosure of the Bush-era torture memos to White House counterterrorism adviser and former CIA official John O. Brennan, who has raised arguments that exposure of the memoranda would run afoul of policies protecting the secrecy of agency techniques and has also argued that the memos would embarrass nations like Morocco, Jordan, Pakistan, Tunisia and Egypt, which have cooperated closely with the CIA in its extraordinary renditions program. Few informed independent observers, however, find much to credit in the Brennan objections because the techniques are now well-known, as is the role of the cooperating foreign intelligence services—any references to which would in any event likely be redacted before the memoranda are released. Moreover, the argument that the confidence of those engaged in torture—serious criminal conduct under international and domestic law—should be kept because they would be “embarrassed” if it were to come out borders on comic.

The Justice Department source confirms to me that Brennan has consistently opposed making public the torture memos—and any other details about the operations of the extraordinary renditions program—but this source suggests that concern about the G.O.P.’s roadblock in the confirmation process is the principle reason that the memos were not released. Republican senators have expressed strong reservations about their promised exposure, expressing alarm that a critique of the memos by Justice’s ethics office (Office of Professional Responsibility) will also be released. “There was no ‘direct’ threat,” said the source, “but the message was communicated clearly—if the OLC and OPR memoranda are released to the public, there will be war.” This is understood as a threat to filibuster the nominations of Johnsen and Koh. Not only are they among the most prominent academic critics of the torture memoranda, but are also viewed as the strongest advocates for release of the torture memos on Obama’s legal policy team.

This is really an appalling situation, showing you just how far Republicans will go to protect their own criminal activities. Harold Koh and Dawn Johnsen are respected legal scholars - Koh even garnered the support of Bush's solicitor general Ted Olson. Conditioning their entry into the Administration on official secrecy makes a mockery of the whole concept of advise and consent.

First, the President has traditionally been given deference in the choice of his advisors. If some President wants to have someone in his cabinet, the presumption is that he ought to be able to do so, absent illegality or some sort of manifest incompetence. For the Republican Senators to hold these appointees up not for those reasons, but because they disagree with their policies, is just wrong; if this happened every time a new administration came into office, the opposition party would filibuster half the nominations and no one would never govern at all.

Second, what the Republicans are trying to do is to dictate to the President a matter that is purely his prerogative: deciding whether or not to unclassify documents. This is insane: it's as though Obama threatened to withhold funding for the Senate unless Mitch McConnell fired some staffer he didn't like.

And the combination -- holding appointments hostage while trashing people's reputations in order to keep Obama from making a decision he plainly has the right to make -- is unconscionable.

I am not, in general, a big fan of saying: Republicans: you lost. Get over it. But in this case, I'm going to make an exception. The Republicans do not seem to be willing to allow the President to do things that are plainly his prerogative: appointing the reasonable, qualified, law-abiding people of his choice, deciding which documents should be declassified, and so forth. Any moment now they'll threaten not to pass the budget unless he sets his air conditioner at their preferred temperature.

Glenn Greenwald doesn't seem to buy the claim of Republican blackmail, but agrees that there is no possible excuse for concealing these memos. These memos comprise secret laws agreed to by our government, under cover of darkness, which had wide-ranging impacts on American policy. No vote was scheduled, no disclosure made to the people, indeed no accountability whatsoever came as a result of this law. And of course, it violated international law and treaties to which America is a signatory. There cannot be any reason to continue this practice beyond a cover-up.

I would hope that, before believing this excuse for non-disclosure, everyone would first demand proof that this claim of GOP threats is true -- namely, I'd like to see evidence that the GOP Senate caucus is really prepared to unify in a filibuster of Obama nominees in order to keep these torture memos concealed. But even if it is true, it's entirely irrelevant. Politically, that's a fight the Obama administration -- if it even remotely believes in all the things it has been saying about transparency -- should be prepared to wage. But beyond the political considerations, the government simply has no right to keep things secret in order to avoid political embarrassment or conflict, and Obama's top OLC officials themselves spent the last five years arguing exactly that.

The only conceivable reason for wanting to keep these memos secret is to avoid the deep and justifiable embarrassment the U.S. will feel upon placing before the world documents that explicitly authorized war crimes at the highest levels of our government, and thereby avoid what will inevitably be the increasing political pressure -- domestic and international -- to investigate and prosecute the war criminals. Those who authorized these tactics knew full well that what they were doing was wrong.

At this point, I would certainly like to hear from every Republican Senator, to get them on the record about this. Do they believe Johnsen and Koh should be filibustered? Do the "Gang of 14" who acted to save the filibuster for judicial nominations believe the same thing? Once we have a full whip count, we can properly judge the reasons why the Obama Administration has delayed disclosure of these crucial memos.

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