Yesterday’s American Heroes, Not Tomorrow’s Leaders


By Joe Campbell
September 30th, 2008

The Washington Post excerpted Barton Gellman’s new book on the Cheney Vice Presidency. Gellman includes the following scene which helps to fill in the gaps in the story that culminated in the infamous showdown in Attorney General Ashcroft’s hospital room. After Ashcroft, Comey, Goldsmith, and Philbin had determined that the Bush administration was breaking the law, they began to take steps to push the administration into compliance, leading to this meeting:

Comey, Goldsmith and Philbin found the titans of the intelligence establishment lined up, a bunch of grave-faced analysts behind them for added mass. The spy chiefs brought no lawyers. The law was not the point. This meeting, described by officials with access to two sets of contemporaneous notes, was about telling Justice to set its qualms aside.

The staging had been arranged for maximum impact. Cheney sat at the head of Card’s rectangular table, pivoting left to face the acting attorney general. The two men were close enough to touch. Card sat grimly at Cheney’s right, directly across from Comey. There was plenty of eye contact all around.

This program, Cheney said, was vital. Turning it off would leave us blind. Hayden, the NSA chief, pitched in: Even if the program had yet to produce blockbuster results, it was the only real hope of discovering sleeper agents before they could act.

“How can you possibly be reversing course on something of this importance after all this time?” Cheney asked.

Comey held his ground. The program had to operate within the law. The Justice Department knew a lot more now than it had before, and Ashcroft and Comey had reached this decision together.

“I will accept for purposes of discussion that it is as valuable as you say it is,” Comey said. “That only makes this more painful. It doesn’t change the analysis. If I can’t find a lawful basis for something, your telling me you really, really need to do it doesn’t help me.”

“Others see it differently,” Cheney said.

There was only one of those, really. John Yoo had been out of the picture for nearly a year. It was all Addington.

“The analysis is flawed, in fact facially flawed,” Comey said. “No lawyer reading that could reasonably rely on it.”

Gonzales said nothing. Addington stood by the window, over Cheney’s shoulder. He had heard a bellyful.

“Well, I’m a lawyer and I did,” Addington said, glaring at Comey.

“No good lawyer,” Comey said.

This story reminds me of something that gets lost in the day-to-day campaign: Attorney General John Ashcroft, Deputy Attorney General James Comey, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Patrick Philbin, Assistant Attorney General Jack Goldsmith, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Air Force Colonel Morris Davis, Army Captain Ian Fishback, General Eric Shinseki, and yes, Senator Chuck Hagel, Senator John McCain, Senator Lindsay Graham, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates – all of these men, and other unnamed men and women stood against and were able to moderate the Bush administration’s worst impules. Some stood up and insisted that the rule of law applied to all citizens; others stood against and exposed torture and inhuman treatment; others stood against the hubris and arrogance of the Bush administration. Many Democrats were co-opted by the Bush adminisrtation, but more opposed it. But these Democrats never were let on the inside, and so never had the opportunity, never had to face the difficult choice of whether to risk their career and turn against their party for a moral or political principle. These individuals demonstrated courage, and they deserve credit and praise. These individuals, more than anyone, are responsible for preserving what is left of our republic.

But still, especially in this election year, we must remember that these men were Republicans for a reason – and most have remained Republicans. Jack Goldsmith forced the Justice Department to re-write the torture memos – but he still believes in a unitary executive, with many of its extreme implications. John McCain may have criticized Donald Rumsfeld, but he was always a strong supporter of the Iraq war as well as any other necessary military interventions in the Middle East. John Ashcroft may have heroicly refused to give in to executive pressure on wiretapping while hospitalized, but he also routinely authorized gross violations of civil liberties.

These individuals deserve great credit for keeping their heads about them while the Bush administration sought to seize near unlimited power, but we need more than a more moderate version of George W. Bush from out next president.

Which is why, as much as we should honor these individuals, they do not represent the future, the next step.

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