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National Security Politics The Opinionsphere The War on Terrorism

The Judgment of History

Patrick Radden Keefe mentioned, in an offhand manner, one of the great questions about the transition:

Even the legal opinions governing the program are still squirreled away in a safe in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office. In recent months, the Senate Judiciary Committee and a Washington district judge have ordered them turned over, and the next attorney general should do so immediately.

He was referring here to the wiretapping program specifically – but it applies to many of the legal rationales in the War on Terror. Dick Cheney and his lieutenants David Addington and Scooter Libby perfected the art of bureaucratic warfare during the first years of the Bush administration. According to Jack Goldsmith as quoted by Barton Gellman:

They were geniuses at this. They could divide up all these problems in the bureaucracy, ask different people to decide things in their lanes, control the facts they gave them, and then put the answers together to get the result they want.

In addition – as Keefe mentioned – and as Gellman reported in his book The Angler – Addington kept certain legal documents exclusively in the safe in his office. Not just copies – but the originals, with no copying permitted, and with access to the documents severely limited. (For example, even the attorneys in the National Security Agency responsible for making sure the NSA was following legal guidelines were not permitted to see the legal rationale for their wiretapping program.) As members of the incoming administration attempt to decide what is the best means to deal with the abuses of power during the Bush administration – Nuremberg-style trials? a truth commission offering clemency? the normal legal system? – you have to wonder what steps Cheney and Addington will take. There has been much discussion of whether or not George W. Bush will offer a preemptive pardon to anyone involved in the War on Terror – but less discussed is what Cheney and Addington might be able to do to entirely obfuscate attempts to find out what happened.

Based on my understanding of Cheney’s personality as described by Barton Gellman – and on his recent interview with ABC News – I think Cheney might want to just get it all out there. He virtually admitted – though not necessarily to the point of taking legal responsibility – that he authorized war crimes:

He was also asked whether he authorized the tactics used against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

“I was aware of the program, certainly, and involved in helping get the process cleared, as the agency in effect came in and wanted to know what they could and couldn’t do,” Cheney said. “And they talked to me, as well as others, to explain what they wanted to do. And I supported it.

It seems that Cheney – at least on some issues – is now, and finally, willing to come forward and admit his role. He isn’t willing to admit fault – but seems proud of what he did, and willing to accept the judgment of history.

Still given the extreme secrecy surrounding even the legal rationale of many aspects of the War on Terror, we may never know if documents are destroyed.

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