No Comment — March 11, 2008, 12:24 pm

The President’s Lawyers

At the peak of the Civil Rights movement, when my first thoughts about civics were formed, the Department of Justice assumed a promethean role. Most of Washington was, of course, mired in partisan bickering. But the Justice Department seemed to stand for something noble and grand, for a unifying set of principles that the nation could agree upon. It stood for the rights of the downtrodden, even when this was not a popular thing, and particularly where it was not. The Justice Department stood for the Rule of Law. This is not to say that political gamesmanship was absent, for it can never be driven entirely from a political institution. Still, the Justice Department seemed to stand majestically above most of the fray. That was the period of its institutional apogee.

Today, the Justice Department seems at the base of some dark crevasse, and when beams of light flow into it, what we see always causes a shudder. Far from being the gatekeeper of the nation’s legality and the custodian of its ethics, the Justice Department has emerged as the single most corrupt institution on the Washington landscape. The fact that Bush’s first attorney general will soon appear before Congress to explain how he secured a fantastically profitable no-bid contract from a particularly suspect and highly political U.S. attorney can serve as a summary for the entire sordid mess in which the department finds itself. And yet John Ashcroft looks like a moral paragon compared with what followed.

For the better part of a year, one attorney general and his deputies appeared before Congressional committees and had streaming lapses of recollection. The memory failures always had to do with political manipulations using the justice system. And when they were able to recall facts, their recollections turned out to be false on critical points. Public outrage forced the departure of the entire senior leadership of the department. And then a new team began to arrive.

The new team is busy making its mark today. It is much more intelligent, but no more honest than the team it replaced. The new team loves clever word play and gives us dark demonstrations of mental finesse–the finesse of an authoritarian genius. The president makes the law, they tell us, and the president can do no wrong. When the president adopts a view of the law, it is binding upon us. A seventeenth-century Royalist lackey would hardly manage a different set of formulations. So with bone-chilling calculus they rationalize torture, thwart the investigation of grave crimes and erect barriers against the discharge by Congress of its duty of oversight. In a word, they put personal fidelity to a president over duty to the Constitution and the basic principles on which our nation rests. They remove the frame from our Constitution and put in its place the notions of personal subservience that mark tyranny.

These lawyers have no fidelity to law. They are an army of termites working away at the infrastructure of our democracy. And the first institution they will yet bring to complete destruction is the Department of Justice.

The gravity of this betrayal cannot be overstated. And if there are two cesspools inside the Justice Department today, two centers of legal depravity, then they are the Office of Legal Counsel and the Public Integrity Section in the Criminal Division. Both operate to the same crude principle of politics trumps right. Both are working indefatigably to destroy the public’s confidence in the Department of Justice.

Today, the editors of the Washington Post chart the moral collapse of the Office of Legal Counsel:

Since its creation in the early 20th century, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel has been considered the legal conscience of the executive branch, rendering judgments to presidents and executive agencies about what the law allows. The OLC responds to executive branch requests for clarifications on everything from how to determine annual leave for federal employees to whether treaty provisions are constitutional and how torture should be defined. Its opinions are binding on the executive and essentially carry the weight of law. Past OLC opinions continue to have force when a new administration begins, just as Supreme Court decisions enjoy the force of law long after the justices who made them have left the bench.

Unfortunately, during the Bush administration, the OLC has become known as a partisan enabler of legally and ethically questionable presidential policies, including those involving the use of torture. The OLC’s decisions have eroded the legitimacy of the office and given legal cover to behavior that most Americans — and most lawyers — regard as improper.

The Post notes that the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) is looking into the ethics of the OLC and its memo writing. I have now examined a series of cases which have been reviewed by OPR. My review leaves me convinced that OPR is an emasculated, politically immobilized organization. It’s stunning that notwithstanding a firestorm that erupted over OLC and its torture memoranda four years ago, notwithstanding the fact that they were ridiculed and condemned by the organized bar in the United States and around the world, no action was ever taken. OPR’s inaction speaks volumes about its lack of motivation. Today OPR exists to provide cover—to say that something is being “looked at”—but there is no evidence of any life force within the organization. The Office of Inspector General is a positive contrast, but OPR seems to devote more energy to blocking the Inspector General from doing its work than it does to any internal investigation on its own. No one has confidence in OPR any more. That’s a simple fact. It has betrayed the institution it should have protected.

The Post is correct about the role of the OLC. It has become an enabler for corrupt, dishonest and criminal policies. Its opinions shield gross misconduct. It has become, as Jack Goldsmith suggested, a mill generating “get out of jail free” passes to the Bush Administration’s political hack retainers.

OLC is dragging the Justice Department into depths it has never known before. And its descent has not yet even begun to slow.

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