No Comment — August 24, 2009, 4:30 pm

Holder’s Modified, Limited Hangout

Attorney General Eric Holder today announced that he has charged John Durham, a career prosecutor from Connecticut, to examine a series of cases in which CIA interrogators appear to have exceeded the guidelines provided in the use of Bush-era torture techniques and to determine whether cause exists for a full criminal investigation. Durham is a serving special prosecutor, having been appointed by Michael B. Mukasey to look into the destruction of tapes of interrogation sessions after the CIA’s Inspector General concluded that the tapes had to be preserved. Durham is also a registered Republican. In announcing his decision, Holder stated that “I have made it clear in the past that the Department of Justice will not prosecute anyone who acted in good faith and within the scope of the legal guidance given by the Office of Legal Counsel regarding the interrogation of detainees. I want to reiterate that point today, and to underscore the fact that this preliminary review will not focus on those individuals.”

Note that Holder does not expressly exclude the possibility of prosecuting Justice Department lawyers or figures in the White House. That is of course proper, because it is not the role of the attorney general to tell the prosecutor who he should or should not investigate. But there are still troubling aspects to Holder’s decisions. It is revealing that Holder decided not to release the report of the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), which reviews and comments on the legal guidance given by OLC. That report was readied, apparently on Holder’s instructions, for release today. Why did Holder decide to keep the OPR report under wraps?

I can propose a number of reasons:

First, the report itself could question the legal competence of the OLC memos—which were in fact repudiated by the Bush Administration before Holder even arrived on the scene. It could therefore provide ample reason to doubt whether anyone with legal training—or indeed, anyone with a functioning mind and the ability to read—would find the memos to be persuasive statements of the law. That matters, because the law requires someone relying on them to have done so “in good faith.”

Second, the factual section of the OPR report could show that the memos were not commissioned because the White House or the CIA wanted the benefit of OLC’s thoughts about the law. In fact, the torture program was already in place and being used. These memos were solicited and written as get-out-of-jail cards to get CIA interrogators, at least some of whom raised concerns about the legality of what was being done, to use the new techniques.

Third, the Holder Justice Department may want attention focused on the CIA interrogators and away from the reprehensible role played by the Justice Department. Release of the OPR report would fuel discussion of the role played by John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and Steven Bradbury and of the link between the CIA and Vice President Cheney’s office—since the OLC memos were written as a collaborative effort between the OLC attorneys and still-unidentified persons who worked for Cheney.

While Holder presents himself as moved by legitimate law-enforcement concerns, his actions are questionable. Does he want to put the Justice Department in the position of saying it has investigated the crimes that obviously occurred, and then limit the scope of the investigation in a way that makes any prosecution rather unlikely? Doing so might keep criminal action involving Justice Department personnel (and in the White House) at bay. No–it seems that he is offering what, as John Dean reminds us, was known in the Watergate era as a “modified, limited hangout.” Yes, some of those involved in the program will be exposed to the possibility of prosecution–but right now it seems that the torture program’s true authors could escape any serious scrutiny.

That would be a travesty. But it would be wrong to believe at the outset that this entire exercise is predetermined and a whitewash. John Durham does not have the sort of credentials I think would have been appropriate for this job—it should have gone to someone whose background makes him a peer of the attorney general, not a senior employee who reports to him. Nonetheless, Durham’s credentials as a prosecutor are impeccable, and his handling of the CIA tapes so far reflects consummate professionalism—particularly because it has been handled aggressively but without leaks to the press, which are the hallmark of the prosecutor who has the wrong motives in mind.

The public should trust Durham to do his job. But the Justice Department should come clean about its unsavory role in this entire affair. That process will start with the publication of the OPR report and the release of documents cited and discussed in it. Holder needs to release these documents immediately, and he should be pressed to account for his failure to do so.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

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

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

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2016

Don the Realtor

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Atlas Aggregated

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Origins of Speech

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Four in Verse

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Sigh and a Salute

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Four in Prose

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Martin Amis on the rise of Trump, Tom Wolfe on the origins of speech, Art Spiegelman on Si Lewen, fiction by Diane Williams, and more

In Havana, the past year has been marked by a parade of bold-faced names from the north — John Kerry reopening the United States Embassy; Andrew Cuomo bringing a delegation of American business leaders; celebrities ranging from Joe Torre, traveling on behalf of Major League Baseball to oversee an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team, to Jimmy Buffett, said to be considering opening one of his Margaritaville restaurants there. All this culminated with a three-day trip in March by Barack Obama, the first American president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. But to those who know the city well, perhaps nothing said as much about the transformation of political relations between the United States and Cuba that began in December 2014 as a concert in the Tribuna Antiimperialista.

Illustration by Darrel Rees
Article
Don the Realtor·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"If you have ever wondered what it’s like, being a young and avaricious teetotal German-American philistine on the make in Manhattan, then your curiosity will be quenched by The Art of the Deal."
Photograph (detail) © Polly Borland/Exclusive by Getty Images
Article
The Origins of Speech·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"To Chomsky...every child’s language organ could use the 'deep structure,' 'universal grammar,' and 'language acquisition device' he was born with to express what he had to say, no matter whether it came out of his mouth in English or Urdu or Nagamese."
Illustration (detail) by Darrel Rees. Source photograph © Miroslav Dakov/Alamy Live News
Article
A Sigh and a Salute·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Si told me that various paintings had spoken to him, but he wished they had been hung closer together 'so they could talk to each other.' This observation planted a seed that would come to fruition years later in his mature work."
Artwork (detail) by Si Lewen
Article
El Bloqueo·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Amid the festivities and the flood of celebrities, it would be easy for Americans to miss that the central plank of the long-standing cold war against Cuba — the economic embargo — remains very much alive and well."
Photograph (detail) by Rose Marie Cromwell

Estimated temperature of Hell, according to two Spanish physicists ‘ interpretation of the Bible:

832°F

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.

A TSA agent in Seattle was arrested for taking up-skirt photos of women in the airport, a Maryland police officer was arrested for taking up-skirt photos of an off-duty colleague, and the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled that taking up-skirt photos is legal in the state.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today