torture

Torturing the Rule of Law

Newsweek is reporting:

Over objections from the U.S. intelligence community, the White House is moving to declassify—and publicly release—three internal memos that will lay out, for the first time, details of the "enhanced" interrogation techniques approved by the Bush administration for use against "high value" Qaeda detainees. The memos, written by Justice Department lawyers in May 2005, provide the legal rationale for waterboarding, head slapping and other rough tactics used by the CIA. One senior Obama official, who like others interviewed for this story requested anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity, said the memos were "ugly" and could embarrass the CIA. Other officials predicted they would fuel demands for a "truth commission" on torture.

Torture and the other illegal activities approved at the very highest levels of the Bush Administration must be exposed to the public for a simple reason: sweeping officially-sanctioned lawbreaking under the rug is dangerously corrosive to the rule of law.  After all, if one president can get away with illegal behavior without any consequences, what’s to prevent another president from doing the same?

America will have more presidents, good and bad, and letting the malefactors of the Bush Administration off the hook can only encourage future criminal abuses of authority.

We must have full accountability for what happened during the Bush era.
 

PFAW

Rumors of their death...

Even before November's election, gallons of ink were being spilled to report the demise of the Religious Right. But, as Mark Twain might have said, rumors of the Right's death have been greatly exaggerated.

A small incident that was mostly ignored by the media gives a glimpse of the Radical Right's continued pull on Capitol Hill. Last week, People For's Right Wing Watch blog documented the evolution of a right-wing lie, starting with complaints by Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice that a provision in the stimulus bill discriminated against people of faith (and was, specifically, anti-Christian). In fact the provision in the bill was standard language that barred the use of federal funds to construct buildings designed for religious worship or sectarian instruction and had no bearing at all on campus prayer.  Nevertheless, ACLJ's complaints bubbled up through the right-wing echo chamber and eventually became an amendment, offered by Senator DeMint of South Carolina, to strip the provision. The amendment was ultimately defeated, although by a less-than-comfortable margin. In the end, 43 senators, including some Democrats, voted with DeMint ... on an amendment that was based on nothing but the paranoid demagoguery of a fringe right-wing organization.

The right-wing message machine is firing on all cylinders too: aggressively targeting the Obama administration. It has already weighed in heavily on the economic stimulus plan, ensuring that there was no Republican support for the Obama plan during the House vote (and little more in the Senate), and Religious Right leaders are moving quickly to increase their influence within the Republican Party and at the state and local level.

Perhaps most dauntingly, the Right is laying the groundwork for future battles over judicial nominations. Some Right Wing leaders, including Family Research Counsel President Tony Perkins, have been very explicit about linking their current attacks on DOJ nominees to future obstruction of Obama judges. And if the current attacks are any indication, they'll throw everything they've got at the President's nominees to the bench. Deputy Attorney General-nominee David Ogden, for instance, represented groups defending the First Amendment (including the American Library Association and the American Booksellers Association), and is now being smeared as a "porn lawyer" for his efforts. Dawn Johnsen, President Obama's choice to head the Office of Legal Counsel, is being aggressively targeted because of her outspoken opposition to the Bush administration's support of torture, rendition, and warrentless spying -- to say nothing of her time on staff at NARAL Pro-Choice America.

People For the American Way and People For the American Way Foundation are out there every day -- pushing back on the Right's unyielding efforts. We're digging in our heels for 2009, ready to:

  • research, educate about and counter extreme claims of the Radical Right;
  • uphold and advocate for a progressive vision of the Constitution;
  • support the confirmation of progressive jurists and promote progressive legal theories while taking part in strategic litigation;
  • fight for equality for all, especially through the Foundation's work to combat homophobia in the Black Church; and
  • invest in progressive leadership.

You can help with these efforts by helping to expose the Radical Right in your community, and by staying abreast of right-wing trends by reading the Right Wing Watch blog (and signing up for regular Best of the Blog e-mail updates).

By standing with People For the American Way, you are standing against the undeserved influence of right-wing extremists in our politics and our culture. And I thank you for it.

PFAW

Restoring Justice, Step by Step

On Monday, Eric Holder was confirmed as Attorney General. Big news ... and good news for Americans who depend on the Justice Department to defend their rights. A bit more under the radar, Monday also saw another important piece of news at the DOJ. Leslie Hagen, a Justice Department attorney who was fired by Monica Goodling because of rumors that she was a lesbian, was rehired to her previous job at the Department.

This is just one step in cleaning up the appalling mess at the DOJ left by egregious politicization during the Bush administration. Monica Goodling, senior counsel to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, was by all objective standards unqualified for such a high post. Her only "qualifications" -- the only ones that mattered in the Gonzales DOJ -- were that she was a partisan ideologue who graduated from Pat Robertson's Regent University Law School and was committed to reshaping the Justice Department to operate on a right-wing agenda.

Even though the politicization of the DOJ under President Bush was shameful (and possibly criminal), some senators apparently think it should continue and are taking their marching orders from the Radical Right. The next targets of their witch hunt? Three more of the president's eminently qualified DOJ nominees: David Ogden, Thomas Perrelli and Dawn Johnsen.

Dawn Johnson, for example, has been tapped to head the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) -- the office that, under the Bush administration, produced the memos that served as its guidelines for detainee treatment and executive overreaching. Johnsen has been a harsh critic of the Bush administration's legal justifications for its policies. And, in her extremely impressive legal career, she spent several years at NARAL Pro-Choice America. Already some senators like Jeff Sessions of Alabama -- who earlier this week assailed the Johnsen nomination on the Senate floor -- are suggesting that, in their view, pro-choice bona fides should be an instant disqualifier.

Quickly confirming the rest of President Obama's Justice Department team will be one more important step, but there's still much more to be done to repair what was so damaged during the Bush years.

Let's look back at just a few of the disasters born out of DOJ's right-wing politicization:

  • political firings of U.S. attorneys;
  • political firings of staff attorneys, especially in the Civil Rights Division;
  • refusal to properly enforce civil rights laws, particularly those protecting voting rights;
  • Department approval and justification of unconstitutional policies from warrantless domestic spying to the denial of habeas corpus and torture.

People For the American Way will be pushing for investigations into these wrongdoings. I know how important this issue is to our activists -- you've pitched in time and again over the last eight years as we've pushed for accountability and the rule of law at the DOJ, and hundreds of you wrote me impassioned emails last week about just how critical it is to keep pushing.

Karl Rove and others who are subpoenaed to testify or provide documents must comply and cooperate not just with Justice Department probes into these matters, but also with any and all congressional investigations. Congressional action is what's needed to get to the bottom of what happened, hold those responsible accountable and prevent similar abuses of power from happening in the future.

Making sure investigations happen and proceed effectively and making sure President Obama's other Justice Department nominees are confirmed smoothly are just two things we'll be working hard for in the coming weeks, and there will be much more.

I'd also like to take a moment to ackowledge Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who is in the hospital recovering from surgery. She's a true defender of our constitutional values and I know you'll join me and the rest of the staff of People For in wishing her a speedy recovery.

PFAW

It's Our Moment, Let's Make the Most of It!

This Tuesday marks what I hope will be the beginning of a dramatic new direction for our country. The relevance of President-elect Obama's inauguration falling one day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is not lost on any of us. The swearing in of the first African American president will be one of the great moments in America's history and a massive leap toward the fulfillment of Dr. King's dream, not only because of Obama's race, but because the movement that swept him into office was born of the American people's desire to pursue a more just path as a nation. That in itself is something that Dr. King would have been proud to have witnessed.

I said that I "hope" this will be the beginning of a big change in direction because it's up to all of us to make sure that change actually happens, to make sure the new administration corrects the last president's worst mistakes in a timely fashion. And it's not just the Obama administration that needs to feel constant pressure from us, it's Congress as well. I've seen reports of senators and representatives showing some reluctance to make many of the bold changes we need. And as expected, we're seeing the resurgence of the Far Right as a backlash to new progressive power. The Radical Right is not only in a position to strengthen its grip on power in the Republican Party, it's ready to pounce on any anti-government sentiment that may bubble up in the coming months and years, especially -- and ironically -- as a result of the economic hard times their very policies have left us with. Long story short: People For the American Way is more needed than ever, and we need your support and your vigilance in the months and years to come.

When a group of activists confronted him shortly after his first inauguration seeking a list of specific reforms, Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said, "I agree with you. I want to do it. Now make me do it." That is what grassroots democracy is all about -- making our leaders do what's right. January 20 is the end of our eight-year national nightmare, but it's just the beginning of a new chapter in which we must all do our part.

In the first two weeks of 2009, People For's been fighting the good fight -- our long-term efforts on two pay equity bills are paying off and the legislation has passed the House and is making its way through the Senate. And we've been answering the Right's attacks against Attorney General-nominee Eric Holder, whose Senate confirmation hearing I attended yesterday. Let me say that it was VERY gratifying to hear Holder clearly state that he believes waterboarding is torture, that renditions to countries where there reason to believe they will torture is wrong and that he is committed to restoring the DOJ's Civil Rights Division to a position of prominence and effectiveness). After this week's release of the Inspector General's report on politicization in the Justice Department, it's even more apparent that confirming Holder will be a great beginning to undoing that damage.

On the legal front, the Supreme Court handed People For the American Way Foundation (and the First Amendment) a victory by upholding the policy of the Fredericksburg, Virginia, City Council requiring that the official prayers recited at the beginning of its meetings be non-sectarian. Accepting one of the most important cases of the term, it also chose to hear an appeal of Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Mukasey, in which People For the American Way is defending the constitutionality of an important provision of the Voting Rights Act.

We couldn't do any of our important work without your steadfast support. And with your continued support, People For the American Way will continue to carry the progressive flag and advocate your values on Capitol Hill.

Right now is a time to celebrate. Have an amazing Inaugural weekend, MLK Day and Inauguration Day. Congratulations to Barack Obama and congratulations, America!

PFAW

Department of Justice Will Actually Uphold the Law!

After 8 years of the Bush Administration, it’s amazing how low our collective standards have fallen. For instance, the idea that Barack Obama has appointed people to the Department of Justice who will uphold the rule of law -- as opposed to wantonly ignoring it for political purposes -- struck me almost too good to be true.

But by any standards the team he’s put together looks top notch. Elena Kagan is clearly the big news, but there’s a lot of depth in the slate of nominees. TAPPED points out:

One particular point of interest: Johns[e]n, the new head of the Office of Legal Counsel, has recently written articles entitled Faithfully Executing the Laws: Internal Legal Constraints on Executive Power and What's a President to Do? Interpreting the Constitution in the Wake of the Bush Administration's Abuses. Given that OLC was a hotbed of torture-justifying and illegal-surveillance-allowing during the last administration, it's nice to see that the new boss has a different set of ideas.

Be still my beating heart!

PFAW

Where Is Today’s Deep Throat?

Mark Felt - better known as the anonymous source Deep Throat - died yesterday at the age of 95.  The deputy director of the FBI in the early 1970s, Felt secretly led Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward to the information that eventually toppled the lawless presidency of Richard Nixon.

Felt was hardly a liberal: He had supported several violations of civil liberties perpetrated by the FBI during the 1960s-1970s.  Nevertheless, Nixon’s full-scale assault against the Constitution and the rule of law during Watergate compelled Felt to put his country first and talk to the press about what he knew, albeit anonymously.

Today, we are nearing the end of another presidency that has engaged in a full scale assault against the Constitution and the rule of law.  But unlike a generation ago, the current president’s allies in Congress put partisanship above patriotism and prevented genuine investigations of the administration.

Mark Felt’s death reminds me of another key difference between the era of Watergate and today: Back then, because someone talked, those in power were held accountable.  Today, we are still waiting for people to talk – to tell us what they know and to provide us with the documents shedding light on illegal domestic spying, the outsourcing of torture, the illegal sabotage of Democratic GOTV efforts in 2002, the suppression of voting rights, the politicization of the Department of Justice, Bush’s unlawful signing statements, the arrests of peaceful anti-administration protesters … the list goes on.

The outrages committed by George Bush, Dick Cheney, and others did not happen in a vacuum.  Their illegal policies were carried out by public employees scattered across the government, from the highest levels on down.  There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people who know where the bodies are buried.

For the sake of our country, it is time for them to talk.

PFAW

Putting the Justice back in the DOJ

In Washington, we're hearing rumblings that the Right may be looking to start a fight over Attorney General nominee Eric Holder, whose confirmation hearing will be in early January. It's tough to imagine the kind of audacity it would take to challenge Holder's nomination after Attorneys General Ashcroft and Gonzales.

After eight years of being dominated by politicization, cronyism and extremism, the Department of Justice is in desperate need of a good housecleaning. The Department, like the Attorney General, is supposed to defend the rule of law and Americans' constitutional rights. But under the Bush administration, the DOJ has been used as a weapon against constitutional values, used to fight the administration's ideological and political battles.

In the wake of 9/11, John Ashcroft's Justice Department led the Bush administration's relentless assault on civil liberties. The DOJ was on the forefront of the draconian expansion of surveillance and police powers, and contributed heavily to post-9/11 era of extreme government secrecy. Career lawyers at the DOJ were subtly -- and not so subtly -- pushed out in favor of attorneys more politically and ideologically aligned with the administration. The Civil Rights Division was completely politicized and instead of using its resources to protect voters' rights (by enforcing the Voting Rights Act among other things), the DOJ waged an attack on voting rights by supporting disenfranchising policies like Georgia's restrictive voter ID law. The Department also exploited the 'widespread voter fraud' myth for politically motivated witch hunts -- part of a larger trend of selectively targeting political and ideological opponents for investigation and prosecution.

And how can we forget the Gonzales era at the DOJ! The Attorney General is supposed to be the people's lawyer, but Gonzales was more the president's bag man. The problems that existed under Ashcroft continued or got worse. As more and more news came out about the NSA's illegal warrantless spying on Americans, the torture of U.S. detainees, legally questionable military tribunals and other subversions of the rule of law, we found out that the DOJ had expressly signed off on these administration policies and in some cases even supplied the legal and intellectual underpinning out of the Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). And when a scandal broke over the firing of U.S. attorneys, it became clear exactly how politically motivated hiring and firing practices had been at the DOJ, which evidently was staffed with a disproportionate number of graduates of Pat Robertson's law school (including one of the people tasked with the hiring/firing)!

Attorney General Mukasey has been arguably better than his two predecessors, but following the records of Ashcroft and Gonzales, that's not very hard. Eric Holder is a stellar choice: smart, capable and able to lead the DOJ in a new direction. But he will have his work cut out for him and he'll need help from people like you and me. First, we need to make sure he's confirmed, and that could mean a campaign to defeat whatever attacks right-wing senators throw at him. Then, because of the politically skewed hiring practices, he's going to need the support of the people to make dramatic changes at one of the government's most important agencies.

For eight years, the Department of Justice -- a government agency with a rich history of enforcing civil rights and the rule of law -- has served the worst ideological and partisan impulses of the Bush administration. The era of overzealous ideologues and partisans like Ashcroft and Gonzales is coming to an end.

Thank goodness.

But now it's time to dig in our heels and do our part to put the justice back in the Department of Justice. I hope you don't mind if I call on you for help in the coming months.

PFAW

Unpleasant Business and the First Amendment

Glen Greenwald has a thoughtful and interesting reaction to the conviction of a man who might generously be called a “smut purveyor.”  After being found guilty of distributing pornography, the defendent, Paul Little, was sentenced to 3 years and 10 months in federal prison.  It probably doesn’t hurt to point out that the line between obscenity and art isn’t always easy to find (paging Robert Mapplethorpe!) but Greenwald takes a very different tact.  Why is it illegal to depict fake torture on film but legal to perpetrate real torture in Abu Ghraib?

So, to recap, in the Land of the Free: if you're an adult who produces a film using other consenting adults, for the entertainment of still other consenting adults, which merely depicts fictional acts of humiliation and degradation, the DOJ will prosecute you and send you to prison for years. The claim that no real pain was inflicted will be rejected; mere humiliation is enough to make you a criminal. But if government officials actually subject helpless detainees in their custody to extreme mental abuse, degradation, humiliation and even mock executions long considered "torture" in the entire civilized world, the DOJ will argue that they have acted with perfect legality and, just to be sure, Congress will hand them retroactive immunity for their conduct. That's how we prioritize criminality and arrange our value system.

Of course, consistency has never been one of the Bush administration’s strong suits.  And neither has adherence to the Constitution.

PFAW