No Comment — December 2, 2007, 10:02 am

The Justice Department’s On-Going ‘State Secrets’ Charade

When is information a “state secret” and thus completely exempt from disclosure in legal process, even if its exclusion will produce a manifest injustice? In previous episodes, we have gotten an array of different answers. For instance, we learned that when the Government engages in criminal violations of the FISA statute conspiring with telecommunications companies in the process, with the result that the communications of American citizens are subject to unlawful warrantless surveillance—this is a “state secret.” And likewise, when the Government picks up an innocent man, wrongfully confines him and deprives him of access to counsel and due process, then transports him overseas for the purposes of having him tortured—again a series of criminal acts—this is also a “state secret.” And today we get yet a further installment in what the Bush Justice Department considers to be a “state secret.” It appears that when a convicted felon at the heart of what Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann have labeled the “biggest corruption scandal in American history” pays hundreds of visits to the White House, meeting with the President, the Vice President, and the President’s senior political advisor, and potentially involving them directly or indirectly in his criminal schemes, this, too, is a “state secret” and thus cannot be divulged.

I think we’re detecting a pattern here. “State secrets” it seems has nothing to do with signals intelligence, military planning or armaments—the things traditionally associated with state secrets. No, when the Bush Justice Department uses the term, it means something else: it refers to information which, if disclosed, would be politically embarrassing to the Republican Party, and as to which no other privilege is available. The “state secrets” privilege has literally emerged as the Bush Administration’s new get-out-of-jail-free card.

The AP’s Pete Yost reports:

The Bush administration is laying out a new secrecy defense in an effort to end a court battle about the White House visits of now-imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The administration agreed last year to produce all responsive records about the visits “without redactions or claims of exemption,” according to a court order.

But in a court filing Friday night, administration lawyers said that the Secret Service has identified a category of highly sensitive documents that might contain information sought in a lawsuit about Abramoff’s trips to the White House.

The Justice Department, citing a Cold War-era court ruling, declared that the contents of the “Sensitive Security Records” cannot be publicly revealed even though they could show whether Abramoff made more visits to the White House than those already acknowledged. “The simple act of doing so … would reveal sensitive information about the methods used by the Secret Service to carry out its protective function,” the Justice Department argued.

White House responses to inquiries up to this point have furnished specific evidence of intentional evasion–what in other circumstances (as for instance when it is enforcing rather than subverting the law) the Justice Department would call “obstruction of justice.” For instance, Vice President Cheney gave specific guidance to the Secret Service to destroy records of visits to his office and to stop the practice of recording future visits. President Bush made a number of statements refusing to give a specific account of his meetings with Abramoff, which reportedly have been frequent. As Yost notes, the deceitfulness of the Bush responses was quickly revealed:

Abramoff wrote an e-mail to the national editor of Washingtonian magazine saying that Bush had seen him “in almost a dozen settings, and joked with me about a bunch of things, including details of my kids. Perhaps he has forgotten everything, who knows.” Time magazine reported that its reporters had been shown five photographs of Bush and Abramoff. Most of them, the magazine said, had “the formal look of photos taken at presidential receptions.”

But the motherlode relates to Abramoff’s meetings with Karl Rove and Rove staffers, which likely number into the hundreds—and are matched by hundreds, if not thousands of emails and telephone conversations.

The trail of the Abramoff investigation led several times directly into the White House, but Bush Administration Justice Department investigators, headed by Public Integrity head, Noel Hillman, consistently refused to follow any leads. Hillman was rewarded for keeping things on the right track. He’s now a federal judge.

One likely trail led straight to Alabama and the current controversy surrounding the politically motivated prosecution of former Governor Don E. Siegelman. Abramoff and his sidekick Michael Scanlon, a former assistant to current governor Bob Riley, were deeply involved in advising and representing gambling interests in the Southeast. They turned their clients to support Riley in his campaign against Siegelman, and are linked to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars which flowed into the Riley campaign coffers. It seems likely that Rove knew of or perhaps even had some marginal involvement in these funding and campaign efforts, which sit firmly in the background of the efforts to remove Siegelman from the political process through a corrupt prosecution.

One of Aristotle’s key tests in the definition of forms of government is recited in the Politics: What do you call a state whose ruler, in his conduct of the affairs of state, is enshrouded in secrecy, particularly when the facts, if disclosed, would alert the people to his lawlessness or criminality, but conversely, the same ruler spies constantly upon his people giving them no repose in the conduct of their own personal affairs? Such a ruler, says Aristotle, is called a tyrant, and the quality of his rule is called tyranny. So let’s be clear what the Bush Justice Department is busily constructing. The standards for a democracy are something altogether different.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

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

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2017

Preaching to The Choir

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Monumental Error

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Star Search

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Pushing the Limit

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Bumpy Ride

Bad Dog

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Monumental Error·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

Illustration by Steve Brodner
Article
Star Search·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On December 3, 2016, less than a month after Donald Trump was elected president, Amanda Litman sat alone on the porch of a bungalow in Costa Rica, thinking about the future of the Democratic Party. As Hillary Clinton’s director of email marketing, Litman raised $180 million and recruited 500,000 volunteers over the course of the campaign. She had arrived at the Javits Center on Election Night, arms full of cheap beer for the campaign staff, minutes before the pundits on TV announced that Clinton had lost Wisconsin. Later that night, on her cab ride home to Brooklyn, Litman asked the driver to pull over so she could throw up.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Pushing the Limit·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the early Eighties, Andy King, the coach of the Seawolves, a swim club in Danville, California, instructed Debra Denithorne, aged twelve, to do doubles — to practice in the morning and the afternoon. King told Denithorne’s parents that he saw in her the potential to receive a college scholarship, and even to compete in the Olympics. Tall swimmers have an advantage in the water, and by the time Denithorne turned thirteen, she was five foot eight. She dropped soccer and a religious group to spend more time at the pool.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Bumpy Ride·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

One sunny winter afternoon in western Michigan, I took a ride with Leon Slater, a slight sixty-four-year-old man with a neatly trimmed white beard and intense eyes behind his spectacles. He wore a faded blue baseball cap, so formed to his head that it seemed he slept with it on. Brickyard Road, the street in front of Slater’s home, was a mess of soupy dirt and water-filled craters. The muffler of his mud-splattered maroon pickup was loose, and exhaust fumes choked the cab. He gripped the wheel with hands leathery not from age but from decades moving earth with big machines for a living. What followed was a tooth-jarring tour of Muskegon County’s rural roads, which looked as though they’d been carpet-bombed.

Photograph by David Emitt Adams
Article
Bad Dog·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Abby was a breech birth but in the thirty-one years since then most everything has been pretty smooth. Sweet kid, not a lot of trouble. None of them were. Jack and Stevie set a good example, and she followed. Top grades, all the way through. Got on well with others but took her share of meanness here and there, so she stayed thoughtful and kind. There were a few curfew or partying things and some boys before she was ready, and there was one time on a school trip to Chicago that she and some other kids got caught smoking crack cocaine, but that was so weird it almost proved the rule. No big hiccups, master’s in ecology, good state job that lets her do half time but keep benefits while Rose is little.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

Estimated portion of French citizens with radical-Islamist beliefs who grew up in Muslim families:

1/5

Human hands are more primitive than chimp hands.

Trump declared flashlights obsolete as he handed them out to Puerto Ricans, 90 percent of whom had no electricity in their homes; and tweeted that he wouldn’t keep providing federal hurricane relief “forever” to Puerto Rico, a US territory that the secretary of energy referred to as a “country.”

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today