Administration Officials to Conyers: Catch Us if You Can

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House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) knew he was going to get a fight. And he’s getting one.

Earlier this month, he scheduled a hearing for next week on the administration’s authorization of torture, and along with John Yoo, has invited former Attorney General John Ashcroft, former CIA Director George Tenet, former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, Chief of Staff to the Vice President David Addington, and former Assistant Attorney General Daniel Levin.

Yesterday Conyers released some of the correspondence he’s been having with lawyers for Addington, Yoo, and Ashcroft. As expected, none of them want to testify, and they’re not short on reasons.

Both Yoo and Ashcroft say that they have not been authorized by the Department of Justice to discuss the context of the key torture memos, internal discussions about them, and the like. And both say that they are the subject of lawsuits, and so it would be “inappropriate” to testify.

But it won’t surprise anyone that the letter from Kathryn Wheelbarger, Vice President Dick Cheney’s counsel, is the real masterpiece. It is by now common knowledge that Addington is by far the most powerful and influential lawyer in the administration, particularly with regard to the controversial counterterrorism policies such as torture and the warrantless wiretapping program. But Wheelbarger says that Conyer’s got the wrong guy. If you’re looking to discuss presidential powers in war time, then you really ought to be bugging a presidential aide, she writes. And if it’s interrogation you want to talk about, then “the Director of National Intelligence or his designee and the Secretary of Defense or his designee, respectively, would be the appropriate witness.” From there, it’s on to an argument about how the power of Congress to investigate is limited, so Addington cannot be compelled to show. And then on to an argument about how Addington, due to privilege concerns, wouldn’t be able to say much even if he did show voluntary.

So to sum up, that’s: You’re asking the wrong person, but even if you were asking the right person, you couldn’t make him show up, and even if he did show up, he wouldn’t say anything.

As for Conyers, he says he will issue subpoenas to those who do not agree to appear by this Friday.