On Fall Guys, Forgetting History And Normalizing Radicalism

OPR’s final punt on Yoo, Bybee and Bradbury offers multiple layers for critique. Not all of them deserve immediate, reflexive rebuke.

This leak excerpt sums up matters:

Bush administration lawyers who paved the way for sleep deprivation and waterboarding of terrorism suspects exercised poor judgment but will not be referred to authorities for possible sanctions, according to a forthcoming ethics report, a legal source confirmed.

The work of John C. Yoo and Jay S. Bybee, officials in the Bush Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, provided the basis for controversial interrogation strategies that critics likened to torture in the years after al-Qaeda’s 2001 terrorist strikes on American soil. The men and their OLC colleague, Steven G. Bradbury, became focal points of anger from Senate Democrats and civil liberties groups because their memos essentially insulated CIA interrogators and contractors from legal consequences for their roles in harsh questioning.

Initial reaction by ‘the Left’ [sic], mainstream pundits and lawyers is understandably harsh. On the surface these men unleashed torture, death and permanent moral defacement of the U.S. Internally within the profession and department, Jack Goldsmith, one of the few at DoJ to take a stand during the Dark Years, noted their ‘legal’ work was often incoherent, self-contradictory, and shockingly slipshod. Much of it that we know about today contained misrepresentation. Anonymous Liberal has a succinct summation.

We share those views generally. OPR is never known for its ‘teeth’ within DoJ, the wider legal community or Community. It’s not just another empty sham like the infamously useless ‘Intelligence Oversight Board’. Still, a career official’s decision to water down the original draft’s (reportedly) proposed sanctions gravely undermines the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) former elite status. A wider political science Weberian bureaucratic conclusion is inescapable: the optics are bi-partisan gloss. Regardless of non-political appointees. The bureaucratic (and career) realities are that ‘legal’ memoranda even from DoJ’s DoJ can be written by anyone about anything without serious consequence.

Precedent matters (unless you are the Roberts Court). This decision starts and stops a big deal. For the moment.

On the most narrow front, OPR’s dive necessarily will corrode the Academy as well. This means generation(s) of lawyers to come. An OLC ticket punch used to be universally beyond reproach. Faculty recruitment to Top Ten law schools. If faculty politics can be negotiated an eventual deanship awaits. OLC were legal Jesuits. OPR’s light knuckle rap effectively sanctions de facto and de jure OLC’s overt politicization. The lesson is leave a better paper trail next time. True, the Movement actively groomed law students from good (and terrible) schools for decades for these moments. But how to explain Obama’s DoJ (he’s the alleged constitutional scholar, remember?) filing an unsolicited amicus brief on Yoo’s behalf? The unnecessary action merely fans cynicism. Arguments Obama’s DoJ proffers sadly are not wholly dissimilar to German lawyers’ defenses at Nuremberg. (We won’t do a complete Turle on Olbermann, don’t worry).

And Now For Something Completely Different . . . A Decision From Other Viewpoints

Take two is broader. Here we recognize law, Weberian bureaucratic self-interest and general politics are real partners. Awkward bedfellows. Ideally, constitutional outcomes are decided by inter-branch checks and balances (not the static, rejected separation of powers boilerplate of say of Burger’s unworkable Chadha or the unitarian cut and paste). We always said that national security, constitutional law and the Community properly belong in this prism.

Consider the case of John Yoo. Do you remember back in the day when ACLU, bloggers, etc. were gunning after Yoo as the unmasked ‘mastermind’ behind ‘torture’? Yoo, all day all the time. We remember conversations with a now relatively well read national security journalist/blogger and other Administration critics. We repeatedly advised that Yoo was a patsie. That he was a distraction. The desperate flare off a fighter jet seeking to defeat infrared heatseekers. Addington and Libby were the puppeteers. We even pointed to the Iran Contra Report, Casey and Addington’s relationship, Casey getting Addington on HPSCI as a ‘mole’, Cheney’s role on the House Iran Contra Committee, etc. We described our conversations with the Minority Staff (including Michael Malbin) at the time. (We weren’t the only ones, of course).

Yoo regurgitated cant written 20 years earlier. Now amped all the way up on meth. Gradually all this became ‘well, of course’. But not for some time.

We’re not asking you to join a vain victory lap. Here’s why. From OPR’s perspective, the political realities and Libby and Addington’s goal of manipulating OLC ‘legal product’ are still fresh memories. Yoo already drank their unique unitarian sect’s Kool Aid before he got the job. That’s why he got it. David Addington, however, is not just two words. He was a real ‘force’. His friend Steve Berry (also from Iran Contra days, etc.) who is in some ways the epitome of Washington ‘smooth’ (in praise as well) concedes Addington can be volcanic. (To his credit Berry is a friend who stands with people even in the tough times). Others still try to dance around a personality that can literally fill a room.

In the ether of the co-joined political/legal realm, Addington (and Libby) was/were the proverbial client(s) from Hell. They manipulated inputs, critiqued the product and pre-determined the outcome. OLC is our firewall. A bureaucracy on paper can’t withstand this unprecedented assault. The entity must at the last rely on its people when processes collapse. They obviously failed. Sitting in OPR’s chair, one can see the rationalization that sanctioning Yoo, Bybee, Bradbury (and others) would be like the zealous ‘investigative reporters/policy analysts’ mid 2000s. Grab the puppet. The puppeteers skate. Fall for the flare. If a law license was suspended among them? Another ‘Special Comment’? A sense of vengeance? In Watergate, they nailed John Mitchell. Not just Kenneth Parkinson literally holding the bag. How many Lynndie Englands are enough?

Then bureaucratic mechanics kick in. Bury the file, responsibility and whole sorry episode. Best forgotten. The President says ‘move on (no pun).’ It’s self preservation. If Yoo et al. pay a price beyond reputational damage for intentionally politicized shoddy work (with scienter, knowing understanding of what they were doing) then all of them at DoJ are fair game for just a career-ending allegation. That’s not trivial. When John Nields (House Chief Counsel to the Iran Contra Committee) successfully tried Bivens Actions against rogue FBI personnel before Iran Contra it sent a massive shockwave. Accountability? Lawyers love to dwell on their need to be protected to offer candid advice, etc. That mob lawyers go down in RICO cases as defendants and accessories and OLC essentially gets a Handi Wipe for bloody hands ? The breaks – and they went to the wrong law schools and spoke funny.

Harsh? Here’s how the initial draft’s 2009 decision not to *prosecute* these people played out. Now it’s ‘bad judgment’. Mistakes were made.

The latest word on the Justice Department’s Office Of Professional Responsibility review of the Office of Legal Counsel lawyers who drafted the so-called “torture memos” is that the report concludes that the the lawyers committed “serious lapses in judgment,” as The New York Times puts it in a front page story today, but they should not be prosecuted. How exactly the authors reached that conclusion remains unclear, given that the 220-page investigation is still in draft form and hasn’t been made public.

On the other hand, it’s not exactly a surprise that the forthcoming report won’t recommend prosecution. As I wrote yesterday, a draft was given to its subjects — the OLC lawyers who wrote the torture memos — for their review and comment. Revisions were then made based on their responses. A copy was also given to the CIA for its review and response, though the report wasn’t about the CIA, but rather the legal justification provided for their tactics. All this extraordinary outside input on an internal ethics investigation has sparked serious concern among some senators, particularly Durbin and Whitehouse, who’ve been pushing for full, open and objective investigations of what happened and why.

Meanwhile, the The Washington Post has reported that since the draft was made available to the OLC lawyers, their lawyers have been lobbying the Justice Department to water down the report’s conclusions and recommendations.

Then the chain reaction. Agency, NSA and contractor lawyers will be exposed next. OPR could undermine fatally their claim they were entitled to rely on OLC memos. That then exposes *their* clients. Precedent does matter. You see where this goes. Why should *they* be the only ones held accountable in the TARP universe? It’s not like they made billions.

Assume for a moment that the Stiftung’s checks and balances prism is the right plane to decide inter-branch constitutional questions. Where was Congress? True, Cheney, Addington and Libby turned Congress inside out with their compartmentalization games and got Congress to strangle itself re its own statutory rights on notification, special activity, etc. But they did tell some. About some. And no one did anything. Career officials also know Dumas like to think they are equal and dignified. Press release theatrics an expected part. Complicity is such an ugly word.

All of it goes away for another day if one career official’s ball point just overwrites the words ‘poor judgment’. *Everyone* after all really knows what happened. Can’t we just pretend to forget? It’s the bi-partisan thing to do.


  1. Comment says

    Agree – we had just read some Kristol boilerplate about things he pretends to care about for the base so we had him in mind, but such widespread low-info stats are really less in his long term interest than in the interest of generalized reaction. The GOPs use of so-called Reagan principles (not the ones like higher taxes for medicare and soc or Beirut withdrawl etc) is part of the same base coin.

  2. Dr Leo Strauss says

    These numbers +/- some reasonable margin are showing up across Movement and Republican (deliberately distinct here) product. It is no accident, as our old Sovs used to say, that Roger Ailes went out of his way to emphasize ‘sovereignty’ and national identity as Obama problems, etc. His performance was more canny regarding *his* base than many realize.

    The covertly (Pat merely being overt ala the Uncle in the Basement) Falangist Movement/Republican intellectuals may see this as actual progress. Or for those more inclined ala Chamberlin, further reason to hop an airplane to go to some far off land about which we know nothing about to sign some papers (South Carolina, Texas, Kansas, Alaska, etc.).

    The gang together here pretty much predicted this all collectively over the years. And all together have been exploring in meandering ways whether a liberal democracy can function in this manner. A worry the Stiftung has is ala the book/movie ‘The Perfect Storm’, the nation navigates the brutal giant waves and gale force winds of political today and enters sunlight and calm. Only to realize with horror it’s just the eye of the hurricane.

    All the more reason to urge the netroots to stay focused on the nuts and bolts political future as well the Obama present. This is, to use a phrase out of another context, ‘Protracted Conflict’.

  3. Comment says

    She is prob one of thos folks that could fall for the joke of being told a reasonable 10 dollar wine from Latin America is a thousand dollar barrell. Supposedly, statistically few actually have the lack of allergies or sensitive taste to tell otherwise – We just thought her tweet was just such a condensed combo of fatuousness and phonyness. One thing Obama and Bush both do right is keep that whole scene at arms length.

  4. Dr Leo Strauss says


    re Sally, one wonders if she knows the sludge at the bottom of those thousand dollar bottles is just . . . vinegar and sludge.

  5. Comment says

    “After much religious studying, it is essential to have much good wine!”
    ~Sally Quinn, Twitter

  6. Dr. Leo Strauss says

    May be late posting Tuesday, put down Citizens United and perusing the newly released DoD QDR.

  7. Dr Leo Strauss says

    Should have added more explicitly in the Weberian part that there are also rational and sober ‘proper functioning of government’ political science aspects involved with containing the tatters of this affair. Aside from personal liability for the direct participants in the 2000s, OPR’s decision will impact how departments, agencies and Executive Branch personnel obey a White House in the future.

    If the Executive Branch individually feel that a legal opinion from OLC is essentially worth the same as WaPo Op-Ed, it will have implications for obedience to chain of command/orderly function. The talismatic aspects sought by Agency and other players initially from an OLC opinion and used cynically by Cheney et al. do play a day to day functional role in governing across a host of less glaring but sometimes as fractious domestic issues, etc. An OLC legal opinion is within ordinary governmental affairs a critical tool of governance. Further undermining OLC’s tarnished status as arbiter would have potential implications for an Administration riddled with leave behinds let alone its successors.

    If this ‘necessity'(not just expediency) perspective played any role in the final OPR decision to allow Yoo & Company off with a wrist slap, it sadly is yet another bitter victory for how Cheney et al. subverted the very core of our government.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


CommentLuv badge