The Attorney General of Rollback

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, November 19, 2008; 1:17 PM

If President-elect Barack Obama is the anti-Bush, then Eric Holder, his apparent choice to serve as attorney general, is the anti-Gonzales.

The tenure of Alberto Gonzales, who served as attorney general from 2005 to 2007 -- and before that, as White House counsel -- was marked by what critics described as torture, illegal surveillance and the overt politicization of the Justice Department. Holder, by contrast, could offer a restoration of the department's traditional role.

Eric Lichtblau and John M. Broder write in the New York Times: "If Mr. Holder is selected as attorney general and confirmed by the Senate, his biggest challenge, legal observers agree, will be to restore the credibility of a department that was badly battered by political scandal during the Bush administration. The dismissal of eight United States attorneys in 2007 and other controversies opened up the Justice Department to accusations that it had routinely let politics trump legal considerations."

Josh Meyer writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Supporters describe Holder as someone capable of engineering the kind of swift and significant course corrections that Obama has pledged to make at the Justice Department, which has been beset in recent years by one political controversy after another.

"'He wanted the next attorney general to make broad reforms at DOJ -- someone that has a broad enough basis of support that they can do it,' said [a] source close to the transition team, who was not authorized to speak publicly for Obama. 'It's pretty damn close to a deal. They've done the sounding out and gotten good response back.'"

Carrie Johnson writes in The Washington Post: "'It's fantastic that he will be a great attorney general,' said John Payton, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. 'It's also significant that he will be the first African American attorney general. . . . His mission is going to be to restore the soul of the Department of Justice.'"

Jason Tuohey blogs for the Boston Globe: "Judging by his past statements, Eric Holder Jr., reportedly Barack Obama's top pick for attorney general, may aim to roll back several of the Bush administration's most controversial legal moves if he is selected for the post."

Here is a summary and video of a defining speech Holder gave before the American Constitution Society in June.

"I never thought I would see the day," Holder said, "when a Justice Department would claim that only the most extreme infliction of pain and physical abuse constitutes torture and that acts that are merely cruel, inhuman and degrading are consistent with United States law and policy, that the Supreme Court would have to order the president of the United States to treat detainees in accordance with the Geneva Convention, never thought that I would see that a president would act in direct defiance of federal law by authorizing warrantless NSA surveillance of American citizens. This disrespect for the rule of law is not only wrong, it is destructive in our struggle against terrorism. . . .

"Our government authorized the use torture, approved of secret electronic surveillance against American citizens, secretly detained American citizens without due process of law, denied the writ of habeas corpus to hundreds of accused enemy combatants, and authorized the use of procedures that violate both international law and the United States Constitution.

"Now, I do not question the motives of patriotism of those responsible for these policies. But this does nothing to mitigate the fact that these steps were wrong when they were initiated and they are wrong today.

"We owe the American people a reckoning."

Holder said that "our ability to lead the world in combating these dangers depends not only on the strength of our military leadership but our moral leadership as well." But that moral leadership "has been fractured. To recapture it, we can no longer allow ourselves to be ruled by fear. . . .

"The term 'leader of the free world' is bestowed upon the United States president because of the civil liberties and rights we guarantee our people. It comes from the power of our values as a nation. And for the last six years, the position of leader of the free world has been largely vacant. . . .

"For the sake of our safety and our security -- and because it is the right thing to do -- the next president must move immediately to reclaim America's standing in the world as a nation that cherishes and protects individual freedom and basic human rights. . . .

"It is our task over the next several years to reverse the disastrous course that we have been on over the past few years. We as Americans must stand up and recognize the mistakes that we have made, and we as Americans together must begin the process of correcting those errors, as we have in the past."

Torture Watch

William Glaberson writes in the New York Times: "Military prosecutors have decided to file new war-crimes charges against a Guantánamo detainee who has been called the 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11 terror plot, discounting claims that his harsh interrogation would make a prosecution impossible.

"Earlier charges against the detainee, Mohammed al-Qahtani, were dismissed without explanation by a military official in May and there had been speculation that the Pentagon had accepted the argument that coercive techniques used in questioning him would undermine any trial. . . .

"Mr. Qahtani's well-documented interrogation at the detention camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, has made his case a focal point in debates about Guantánamo and interrogation methods that critics say amount to torture. . . .

"The interrogation of Mr. Qahtani, public military documents show, included prolonged isolation, sleep deprivation, forced nudity, exposure to cold, involuntary grooming as well as requiring him to dance with a male interrogator and to obey dog commands, including 'stay,' 'come' and 'bark.'

"A Pentagon inquiry in 2005 found that the methods, some of which were personally approved by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, were 'degrading and abusive.' . . .

"Mr. Qahtani's military defense lawyer, Lt. Col. Bryan T. Broyles of the Army, said new charges would be troubling.

"Colonel Broyles said, 'It speaks about the moral bankruptcy of this whole process; that there's nothing we can do to these people that is too much, that there are no consequences for our own misconduct.'"

White House Accused (Again)

Dave Helling writes in the Kansas City Star: "The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday said the 2006 firings of U.S. attorneys were orchestrated by the 'highest political ranks' in the White House.

"The report named former deputy White House chief of staff Karl Rove as among those involved.

"'The evidence shows that senior officials were focused on the political impact of federal prosecutions and whether federal prosecutors were doing enough to bring partisan voter fraud and corruption cases,' the report said.

"The committee's majority also concludes the Justice Department's publicly stated reasons for the firings were 'contrived as part of a cover-up.' . . .

"In a statement, Leahy said the report demonstrated why the Senate should pursue contempt citations against Rove and former White House official Josh Bolten for failing to comply with committee subpoenas in the case.

"Rove and Bolten have claimed executive privilege in declining to testify. . . .

From the majority report: "The investigation was met initially by misleading and inaccurate statements from Department officials regarding the reasons for the firings, then by stonewalling by the White House despite evidence of significant involvement by political officials at the White House, and ultimately by the resignations of numerous Department and White House officials, including the Attorney General. . . .

"In light of the evidence showing that White House officials played a significant role in originating, developing, coordinating and implementing these unprecedented firings and the response to Congressional inquiries about it, the investigation will not be complete without information available only from the White House and from current and former White House officials. The White House's unsubstantiated blanket claims of privilege and novel claims of immunity do not trump the Committee's well-established need for the information it has sought about the firings and do not excuse current and former White House officials from complying with the Committee's subpoenas."

A dissent from Republican senators Arlen Specter and Charles E. Grassley noted: "Although we supported the Committee's efforts in the U.S. Attorney removal investigation, including the contempt resolutions voted upon last year, we cannot join the Majority in this Report. . . . [S]o much time has passed that the matter is now somewhere between moot and meaningless."

A considerably more blistering dissent from four other Republican senators on the committee concluded with this statement: "The firing of 9 U.S. attorneys earlier in this Administration is a dead horse that has already been beaten too many times to count. The Majority's factually inaccurate, tendentious, and misleading report on this matter, though unworthy of the committee, is in some ways a fitting coda to the politicized witch hunts that have constituted the 110th Congress's investigation of this matter."

For background, see my Sept. 29 column, Pointing the Finger at the White House, about the Justice Department's (also stymied) internal report into the U.S. attorney firings.

Cheney, Gonzales Indicted (Sort Of)

Christopher Sherman writes for the Associated Press: "Vice President Dick Cheney and former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales have been indicted on state charges involving federal prisons in a South Texas county that has been a source of bizarre legal and political battles under the outgoing prosecutor. . . .

"District Attorney Juan Angel Guerra... himself was under indictment for more than a year and half until a judge dismissed the indictments last month. . . .

"Guerra said the prison-related charges against Cheney and Gonzales are a national issue and experts from across the country testified to the grand jury.

"Cheney is charged with engaging in an organized criminal activity related to the vice president's investment in the Vanguard Group, which holds financial interests in the private prison companies running the federal detention centers. It accuses Cheney of a conflict of interest and 'at least misdemeanor assaults' on detainees because of his link to the prison companies. . . .

"The indictment accuses Gonzales of using his position while in office to stop an investigation in 2006 into abuses at one of the privately-run prisons.

"Gonzales' attorney, George Terwilliger III, said in a written statement, 'This is obviously a bogus charge on its face, as any good prosecutor can recognize.' He said he hoped Texas authorities would take steps to stop 'this abuse of the criminal justice system.'"

CNN notes: "Democratic state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. also is charged in the indictment.

"Michael R. Cowen, an attorney for Lucio, issued a statement calling Guerra a 'one man circus.'"

Lisa Cortez reports for KRGV-TV: "Vice President Dick Cheney's press secretary told Newschannel 5 that she had not heard about the indictment and she had not ever heard of Willacy County. She had no further comment."

Robert Wilcox writes in the Raymondville (Tex.) Chronicle News: "It was not clear what Vice President Cheney did wrong in the vaguely worded 4-page indictment, that is littered with typographical errors."

Steven Benen blogs for Washington Monthly: "It sounded too good to be true, in large part because it is."

Meanwhile, Marisa Taylor writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The Justice Department has agreed to pay for a private lawyer to defend former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales against allegations that he encouraged officials to inject partisan politics into the department's hiring and firing practices.

"Lawyers from the Justice Department's civil division often represent department employees who're sued in connection with their official actions. However, Gonzales' attorney recently revealed in court papers that the Justice Department had approved his request to pay private attorney's fees arising from the federal lawsuit.

"Dan Metcalfe, a former high-ranking veteran Justice Department official who filed the suit on behalf of eight law students, called the department's decision to pay for a private attorney rather than rely on its civil division 'exceptional.' . . .

"The lawsuit accuses Gonzales and four other former and current Justice Department officials of instituting hiring practices that blocked liberal-leaning applicants from two department programs for law students. Gonzales resigned last year amid a controversy over the alleged hiring practices and over the firings of nine U.S. attorneys."

More Crime News

Amy Lorentzen writes for the Associated Press: "Trial begins this week in the case of four people who attempted to arrest former White House adviser Karl Rove during a fundraising appearance earlier this year in Iowa. . . .

"The four were cited after attempting a citizen's arrest of Rove on July 25 at the Wakonda County Club in Des Moines, where he spoke at a Republican fundraiser. They were stopped at the country club's entry gate.

"Iowa law obligated them as citizens to make the arrest, said Frank Cordaro, a Des Moines Catholic Worker and a former priest who helped arrange the citizen's arrest. . . .

"Cordaro called Rove a war criminal, saying he is 'the propagandist who led us into this war in Iraq, which is a war based on lies and deception.'"

Burrowing Watch

Carol D. Leonnig and R. Jeffrey Smith write in The Washington Post: "Democrats in the Senate called on President Bush to halt any effort by his administration to place political appointees in career jobs just weeks before his team leaves office.

"But the White House yesterday said there is no orchestrated effort to embed Bush loyalists in the federal workforce before Barack Obama's inauguration Jan. 20. As happens with any handover of administration, hundreds of current officials in political jobs will be forced to relinquish their posts, and career workers will stay on.

"Spokeswoman Dana Perino said that as a 'matter of policy, the White House has not encouraged noncareer appointees to seek career positions in order to further the president's policies. The White House doesn't play a role in that career hiring process.'"

Here's Perino at yesterday's briefing, responding to a Washington Post story on the subject. (See also yesterday's column): "[W]e think that it was a little bit overwritten, that story this morning."

She added: "[T]here are people in the federal government who -- and you should want people who have worked in the administration who think that they might want to make their careers in government. We have a lot of smart people all across the government with a lot of expertise -- in the financial sector, in the energy sector, in the environmental sector, the Labor Department, et cetera."

Speaking of the Bureaucracy

Paul C. Light writes in his Washington Post column: "The past eight years have been a horror to many federal employees. The Bush administration has rarely missed an opportunity to criticize, cut and meddle, and it dismissed the notion that federal employees need more freedom to innovate and learn. As former vice president Al Gore rightly argued, federal employees are not the problem in poor performance. It is the bureaucracy in which they are trapped.

"The Bush administration, however, decided that the best way to reform government was to outsource it. From 2001 to 2005, civilian employment remained at 1.8 million, more or less, while the estimated number of contractor jobs surged from 4.4 million to 7.6 million."

Light's suggestions: "Obama should cut the number of political appointments at the top of government. . . .

"Obama should ask Congress for authority to hire at least 100,000 front-line servants for beleaguered agencies that no longer have enough staff to handle their responsibilities."

Iraq Watch

Are American military commanders trying to suggest there's some wiggle room in what seemed like pretty firm language in the proposed security pact between the U.S. and Iraq?

Mary Beth Sheridan writes in The Washington Post: "The document sets a withdrawal deadline of Dec. 31, 2011, for American forces. It also says U.S. troops must leave cities and villages by July 2009 for more distant bases."

But, Sheridan writes: "It is not clear that all 150,000 American troops will be gone in three years. 'There is a provision for an extension by agreement of both sides,' a senior U.S. official said this week, speaking on the condition of anonymity. The Iraqis could decide they see a continuing role for U.S. troops, he said. 'They have every right to ask us for such a presence.'

"The role of U.S. troops in Iraqi cities after July may also be greater than the agreement implies. The details of the troops' activities would be worked out in negotiations between the Iraqi and American military, the senior official said.

"U.S. commanders have said they think their troops would still be able to work in Iraqi cities as long as they were involved in joint operations with Iraqi security forces."

Meanwhile, August Cole points out in the Wall Street Journal: "The new agreement covering the U.S. military presence in Iraq, which appears to end immunity from local law for private security contractors, could affect companies the U.S. is likely to rely on as it reduces its forces there."

Paulson's Warning

David Cho writes in The Washington Post: "When President Bush first settled on a chairman of Goldman Sachs named Hank Paulson to be his new Treasury secretary, the administration couldn't seal the deal.

"Nearly everyone Paulson talked to advised him not to do it. He spoke to family. He spoke to colleagues. They raised concerns about whether his reputation would be tarnished, as happened to Bush's first two Treasury secretaries, Paul H. O'Neill and John W. Snow. They proved ineffective, some political analysts said, because their authority had been undercut by the White House.

"Even one of Bush's Cabinet secretaries counseled Paulson against coming to Washington, Paulson said. 'Don't come down here; you can't trust them,' he recalled being told. He declined to identify the Cabinet member. . . .

"Paulson sought out Allan B. Hubbard, director of the National Economic Council at the time, who guaranteed that the White House team would not undermine the Treasury Department."

The rest, of course, is history: "As turmoil in the financial markets escalated, Paulson's influence grew so great that he eclipsed the White House on economic policy. . . .

"Paulson acknowledges that such broad powers have a downside. It would be him -- not the White House -- who would be blamed if the emergency response to the crisis went awry."

Plane Speaking

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Anticipating another holiday travel crunch, President Bush on Tuesday said his administration is taking steps to prevent the frustrating flight delays that many travelers experience.

"The marquee item in his strategy for reducing air traffic congestion during the busy Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday seasons is the temporary opening of airspace typically dedicated to the military to commercial airliners. Last year, the Pentagon freed up two East Coast corridors during Thanksgiving; Bush said that was being expanded this year to also include the Mideast, the Southwest and the West Coast, including the skies around Los Angeles and Phoenix. . . .

"Some of those closest to the problem of congestion and delay in the U.S. air travel system have said that while Bush's modest moves are welcome, they didn't get at the heart of the problem.

"'It had marginal impact' last year, said David A. Castelveter, vice president for communications at the Air Transport Association, a trade group representing major airlines. . . .

"The union representing air traffic controllers also said that last year's efforts made little difference, and that this year's steps are unlikely to provide any significant relief either.

"'It is all for show and, frankly, this show is getting quite tiresome to the American traveling public that has gotten fed up with mounting delays and FAA mismanagement that has degraded the system during the current administration,' National Air Traffic Controllers Association spokesman Doug Church said."

Frank James blogs for Tribune about Bush's visit to the Transportation Department: "[T]he president started off with a joke which contained a kind of heckuva job compliment to the department's employees: 'I appreciate you giving me a chance to come by and visit with you today. I want to thank you very much for the great job you are doing to make sure that across America our railroads and highways and airways are working to keep our citizens moving. You have done a terrific job, as far as I am concerned. The past eight years I have not seen a traffic jam -- (laughter) -- waited for an airplane -- (laughter) -- or had my bags lost. (Laughter.)'

"Yes, it's good to be the king. In Washington, he's the guy who creates the traffic jams.

"I'm sure he didn't mean to rub anyone's face in it."

And in the department's crisis management center, Bush got a grim reminder of history.

According to the pool report from James Gordon Meek of the New York Daily News, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters asked an air traffic controller, to "describe to Bush what his screen looked like on Sept. 11, 2001, 'When the President ordered the planes down.'. . .

"'On 9/11, it was probably about, looking like this - right here,' [the controller] said, gesturing toward his flatscreen monitor. 'A couple hours later, there were maybe two or three flights left.'

"'Hmm. One of 'em was mine,' Bush said with a suddenly somber expression."

The hours immediately after the 9/11 attacks were not Bush's finest moments. As I chronicled in a June 2004 column, Bush responded to the news first with paralysis, then with indecision. Air Force One was in the air a lot that day because it bounced from Florida to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska before returning to Washington.

Press Conference (Non) Watch

From yesterday's White House press briefing:

Q. "Dana, in July the President held a full news conference. It's now November. Is that a format that he just doesn't think useful to him anymore? (Laughter.) . . .

Perino: "I don't know. We never announce press conferences before we actually are going to have one. I wouldn't be surprised if there's one before we leave. But it's just as possible that there might not be any."

Q. "Is he going to have a Christmas party?"

Cartoon Watch

Tony Auth on the message from Washington, Mike Marland on messin' accomplished, Gary Varvel on counting the days, Tom Stiglich on pardoning a turkey and Dwane Powell on the seat of power.

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