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

Monday, June 22, 2009

Slow Motion Avalanche

This jumped past me last week, but a federal judge ordered John Yoo to testify in a case filed by Jose Padilla, who was held in a Navy brig for years and slowly driven insane under the enemy combatant policies of the last regime. Ady Barkan thinks this could actually provide some accountability.

In 2002, Justice Department lawyer John Yoo wrote a memo recommending that Jose Padilla, arrested in Chicago in the wake of 9/11 and held on suspicion of plotting a dirty-bomb attack, be classified as an enemy combatant. Yoo also wrote memos arguing that American law does not prevent the president from ordering such enemy combatants tortured. This January, after enduring years of abuse in prison, Padilla sued Yoo for violating his constitutional rights.

And a week ago, Judge Jeffrey White ruled that Padilla's allegations were plausible enough to justify denying Yoo's motion to dismiss the lawsuit. White was appointed by George W. Bush the year Yoo was writing his memos.

White's decision is the first of its kind: Until now, although other lawsuits have been brought, no government official has faced personal liability for his role in the torture or deaths of detainees. But it probably won't be the last. These cases are just beginning to address the fraught questions of justice that have emerged in the aftermath of the Bush era—what atrocities were committed in the name of national security, who bears responsibility, and how should they be punished? Although neither the Obama administration nor most members of Congress want to deal with these questions directly, they're even more opposed to letting judges (and juries) take a crack at them. Padilla v. Yoo is an example of a surprising development: a conservative judge putting pressure on the Democrats in Washington to create some system of accountability for the Bush administration. It could help spawn more such rulings.

The Obama Administration actually defended Yoo's plea to skirt testifying in this case, clearly to just close down this issue in the name of moving forwards and not backwards. But White really boxed in the White House now, and every option available to them plausibly leads to more disclosure and more court rulings that would force some measure of accountability. Barkan considers this ruling crucially important, and maybe it is. Remember that Bush lost case after case invalidating his national security procedures, and now Obama has mirrored his predecessor on many of those fronts. Taking the hard line on official secrecy and executive privilege has the benefit of delaying accountability, but as long as there are lawyers willing to seek justice - and there are - they will pursue the avenues made available by favorable rulings. This avalanche may be happening in slow motion, but it's rolling downhill, and even a crafty efforts from the elites to shield themselves from a reckoning may not be enough to stop it.

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