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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.

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