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

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Holder Of The Cards

Newsweek is reporting that the Attorney General is considering the appointment of a special prosecutor to probe the Bush/Cheney torture regime.

Holder, 58, may be on the verge of asserting his independence in a profound way. Four knowledgeable sources tell NEWSWEEK that he is now leaning toward appointing a prosecutor to investigate the Bush administration's brutal interrogation practices, something the president has been reluctant to do. While no final decision has been made, an announcement could come in a matter of weeks, say these sources, who decline to be identified discussing a sensitive law-enforcement matter. Such a decision would roil the country, would likely plunge Washington into a new round of partisan warfare, and could even imperil Obama's domestic priorities, including health care and energy reform. Holder knows all this, and he has been wrestling with the question for months. "I hope that whatever decision I make would not have a negative impact on the president's agenda," he says. "But that can't be a part of my decision."

This comes smack dab in the middle of a more personal profile of Holder, with sketches of his easygoing temperament, his fealty to the law measured against his sympathy with the President's agenda, the figure that he and his wife cut at dinner parties (!), his desire to seek common ground in an Obama-esque fashion, a longish section on the Marc Rich issue, and more. It's almost an elegy for the Eric Holder before making the decision to appoint an independent prosecutor, if not a warning that this man will be lost if he pursues such a decision. It's almost that the reporters were preparing a puff piece or beat sweetener and they stumbled upon some hard news.

But there is news here, even beyond the point on an independent prosecutor. The authors try to depict the actions of the Justice Department throughout the Obama Presidency, and on that front, they seem to have taken Holder's side as someone trying desperately to do the right thing regardless of the consequences. Such as:

Holder couldn't shake what he had learned in reports about the treatment of prisoners at the CIA's "black sites." If the public knew the details, he and his aides figured, there would be a groundswell of support for an independent probe. He raised with his staff the possibility of appointing a prosecutor. According to three sources familiar with the process, they discussed several potential choices and the criteria for such a sensitive investigation. Holder was looking for someone with "gravitas and grit," according to one of these sources, all of whom declined to be named. At one point, an aide joked that Holder might need to clone Patrick Fitzgerald, the hard-charging, independent-minded U.S. attorney who had prosecuted Scooter Libby in the Plamegate affair. In the end, Holder asked for a list of 10 candidates, five from within the Justice Department and five from outside [...]

For weeks Holder had participated in a contentious internal debate over whether the Obama administration should release the Bush-era legal opinions that had authorized waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods. He had argued to administration officials that "if you don't release the memos, you'll own the policy." CIA Director Leon Panetta, a shrewd political operator, countered that full disclosure would damage the government's ability to recruit spies and harm national security; he pushed to release only heavily redacted versions.

Holder and his aides thought they'd been losing the internal battle. What they didn't know was that, at that very moment, Obama was staging a mock debate in Emanuel's office in order to come to a final decision. In his address to the cadets, Holder cited George Washington's admonition at the Battle of Trenton, Christmas 1776, that "captive British soldiers were to be treated with humanity, regardless of how Colonial soldiers captured in battle might be treated." As Holder flew back to Washington on the FBI's Cessna Citation, Obama reached his decision. The memos would be released in full.

Holder and his team celebrated quietly, and waited for national outrage to build. But they'd miscalculated. The memos had already received such public notoriety that the new details in them did not shock many people. (Even the revelation, a few days later, that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and another detainee had been waterboarded hundreds of times did not drastically alter the contours of the story.) And the White House certainly did its part to head off further controversy. On the Sunday after the memos were revealed, Emanuel appeared on This Week With George Stephanopoulos and declared that there would be no prosecutions of CIA operatives who had acted in good faith with the guidance they were given. In his statement announcing the release of the memos, Obama said, "This is a time for reflection, not retribution." (Throughout, however, he has been careful to say that the final decision is the attorney general's to make.)

This depiction of Holder and the Justice Department acting at cross purposes to a White House that wanted to keep a lid on past abuses of the Bush Administration neglects the fact that they have in many cases openly facilitated such a cover-up in court filings. The DoJ has consistently invoked the state secrets privilege to shut down lawsuits, tried to keep various records from the past secret, advocated for things like preventive detention and post-acquittal detention, and so on. Among many liberals the Justice Department has been the source of the greatest disappointment in the entire Administration. Clearly, they got the ear of Newsweek, who decided to paint a narrative around this decision on an independent prosecutor. But it doesn't totally scan. Here's the conclusion:

The next few weeks, though, could test Holder's confidence. After the prospect of torture investigations seemed to lose momentum in April, the attorney general and his aides turned to other pressing issues. They were preoccupied with Gitmo, developing a hugely complex new set of detention and prosecution policies, and putting out the daily fires that go along with running a 110,000-person department. The regular meetings Holder's team had been having on the torture question died down. Some aides began to wonder whether the idea of appointing a prosecutor was off the table.

But in late June Holder asked an aide for a copy of the CIA inspector general's thick classified report on interrogation abuses. He cleared his schedule and, over two days, holed up alone in his Justice Department office, immersed himself in what Dick Cheney once referred to as "the dark side." He read the report twice, the first time as a lawyer, looking for evidence and instances of transgressions that might call for prosecution. The second time, he started to absorb what he was reading at a more emotional level. He was "shocked and saddened," he told a friend, by what government servants were alleged to have done in America's name. When he was done he stood at his window for a long time, staring at Constitution Avenue.

The failure to hold those who directed and authorized torture to account impacts our national security and foreign policy in so many different ways, beyond encouraging further abuses and encroachment of executive power. Just this week, alleged cases of torture by the Mexican government in prosecuting the drug war have been revealed, and despite American funding contributing indirectly to these actions, we have little recourse to mount any efforts against it.

Many Mexican human rights activists do not support the [human rights] conditions, noting that they were imposed by a U.S government widely accused of torturing prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“It really takes a lot of cynicism, a lot of hypocrisy, for the United States to say, ‘We will give you money to fight drug trafficking as long as you respect human rights,’” said José Raymundo Díaz Taboada, director of the Acapulco office of the Collective Against Torture and Impunity, which documents abuses in Guerrero.

I think nobody will expect Holder to follow through on this until the moment he announces it, especially given the record of the Obama Justice Department. But there's at least a glimmer of hope that in the documents of the Bush era, the abuses crossed, in the mind of the Attorney General, a bridge too far. And if this is a trial balloon, it's one of the first in the direction of accountability and justice. Perhaps they're looking for some agreement.

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