No Comment — November 17, 2008, 7:18 pm

Justice ♡ Orwell

Why does Michael B. Mukasey have a portrait of George Orwell hanging in his office? Today I read a document that suggests that the spirit of Orwell–or more precisely Orwell’s nightmare–is indeed alive at the Department of Justice. Last week a whistleblower leaked a series of highly incriminating documents about the prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don E. Siegelman. The documents showed that aggressive claims made by the U.S. Attorney who brought the case–and who is close to Karl Rove–were “less than candid.” Indeed, the documents may be more damaging than that.

These documents should have been turned over to Congress, which issued a subpoena requiring their production. But today we see that notwithstanding the damage done to its credibility by the leaks, the Bush Justice Department is intent on stonewalling Congress for every day of their two remaining months. The problem is that they have no legal basis for denying the subpoena. And this is where Orwell gets useful–and where the soulless bureaucrat that Orwell despised knows just what to do. Craft some senseless lines that sound good and principled but are actually devoid of meaning. In a letter responding to the subpoena, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Keith B. Nelson states:

We do not believe that a possible departure from those policies in any given matter, the details of which may not be known or knowable at this point, requires us to set them aside in any other matter.

Talkingpointsmemo quotes a Committee staffer suggesting that Keith Nelson has obviously hired Donald Rumsfeld to write his copy. But I disagree. This text is classic Orwellian doublespeak. The Justice Department’s main point is that disclosure of the documents would injure the Justice Department’s position in the Siegelman appeal, now slated to be argued in Atlanta on December 9.

Of course, recent disclosures show clearly that Nelson’s concern is well taken. The documents that leaked undercut claims made by the U.S. attorney in a statement submitted to Congress. In theory, Congress has a right to look into the honesty of the statements made to it, and act if it finds there was an effort to mislead. Viewed as a strategy for a cornered criminal defendant who’s run out of good arguments, Nelson’s letter looks fine.

I have no doubt that disclosure of this information would severely harm the Justice Department’s position in the Siegelman appeal, just as Nelson suggests. Indeed, any light shed on the inner workings of the Justice Department in this case would destroy it, just as strong sunlight disinfects a bacillus spore. Nelson is doing a good job for his client. Unfortunately for us, he seems to have lost track of the fact that his client is supposed to be the United States.

“Political language,” Orwell tells us in Politics and the English Language, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” The Justice Department has made his case.

Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada



October 2015

Lives by Omission

Lifting as We Climb

Cattle Calls

Getting Jobbed

view Table Content


“One of the peculiar things about economic inequality is that the people who are most articulate about it are not poor, while the poor themselves have said little, at least in print, about their situation.”
Photograph © Reuters/Brendan McDermid
“It would be nice to get through this review without recourse to the term ‘writer’s writer.’ The thing is, in the case of Joy Williams, I have seen the cliché made flesh.”
Illustration by Steven Dana
“Miniatures originated in Persia and were brought to the Indian subcontinent when the Mughals conquered it in the sixteenth century. They could take on almost any subject: landscapes or portraits; stories of love, war, or play.”
Painting by by Imran Qureshi.
“The business of being a country veterinarian is increasingly precarious. The heartland has been emptying of large-animal vets for at least two decades, as agribusiness changed the employment picture and people left the region.”
Photograph by Lance Rosenfield
“Rosie and her husband had burned through their small savings in the first few months after she lost her job. Now their family of five relied on his minimum-wage paychecks, plus Rosie’s unemployment and food stamps, which, combined, brought them to around $2,000 per month, just above the poverty line.”
Illustrations by Taylor Callery

Ratio of children’s emergency-room visits for injuries related to fireworks last year to those related to “desk supplies”:


The ecosystems around Chernobyl, Ukraine, are now healthier than they were before the nuclear disaster, though radiation levels are still too high for human habitation.

The Islamic State opened two new theme parks featuring a Ferris wheel, teacup rides, and bumper cars.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Subways Are for Sleeping


“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today