TPM News

Bart Gellman and Jo Becker continue their excellent series on Vice President Dick Cheney with an exquisite piece on Cheney's role in interrogations. At every stage in the post-9/11 debate, Cheney and his staff sought to enshrine torture as official U.S. policy, relying on a legalistic distinction between "torture" and "cruelty."

David S. Addington, Cheney's general counsel, set the new legal agenda in a blunt memorandum shortly after the CIA delegation returned to Langley. Geneva's "strict limits on questioning of enemy prisoners," he wrote on Jan. 25, 2002, hobbled efforts "to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists."

No longer was the vice president focused on procedural rights, such as access to lawyers and courts. The subject now was more elemental: How much suffering could U.S. personnel inflict on an enemy to make him talk? Cheney's lawyer feared that future prosecutors, with motives "difficult to predict," might bring criminal charges against interrogators or Bush administration officials.

Geneva rules forbade not only torture but also, in equally categorical terms, the use of "violence," "cruel treatment" or "humiliating and degrading treatment" against a detainee "at any time and in any place whatsoever." The War Crimes Act of 1996 made any grave breach of those restrictions a U.S. felony [Read the act]. The best defense against such a charge, Addington wrote, would combine a broad presidential direction for humane treatment, in general, with an assertion of unrestricted authority to make exceptions.

The vice president's counsel proposed that President Bush issue a carefully ambiguous directive. Detainees would be treated "humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of" the Geneva Conventions. When Bush issued his public decision two weeks later, on Feb. 7, 2002, he adopted Addington's formula -- with all its room for maneuver -- verbatim.

In a radio interview last fall, Cheney said, "We don't torture." What he did not acknowledge, according to Alberto J. Mora, who served then as the Bush-appointed Navy general counsel, was that the new legal framework was designed specifically to leave room for cruelty. In international law, Mora said, cruelty is defined as "the imposition of severe physical or mental pain or suffering." He added: "Torture is an extreme version of cruelty."

Read More →

The vice president's office -- where information goes, never to return.

From today's Washington Post profile of Cheney (one part of four):

Stealth is among Cheney's most effective tools. Man-size Mosler safes, used elsewhere in government for classified secrets, store the workaday business of the office of the vice president. Even talking points for reporters are sometimes stamped "Treated As: Top Secret/SCI." Experts in and out of government said Cheney's office appears to have invented that designation, which alludes to "sensitive compartmented information," the most closely guarded category of government secrets. By adding the words "treated as," they said, Cheney seeks to protect unclassified work as though its disclosure would cause "exceptionally grave damage to national security."

Across the board, the vice president's office goes to unusual lengths to avoid transparency. Cheney declines to disclose the names or even the size of his staff, generally releases no public calendar and ordered the Secret Service to destroy his visitor logs. His general counsel has asserted that "the vice presidency is a unique office that is neither a part of the executive branch nor a part of the legislative branch," and is therefore exempt from rules governing either. Cheney is refusing to observe an executive order on the handling of national security secrets, and he proposed to abolish a federal office that insisted on auditing his compliance.

In the usual business of interagency consultation, proposals and information flow into the vice president's office from around the government, but high-ranking White House officials said in interviews that almost nothing flows out. Close aides to Cheney describe a similar one-way valve inside the office, with information flowing up to the vice president but little or no reaction flowing down.

It's so hard to find good help these days.

That seems to be especially true in presidential campaigns recently. Rudy Giuliani’s South Carolina state chairman has just been indicted on charges of cocaine possession. And Mitt Romney’s campaign is already in hot water after an aide allegedly impersonated a state trooper.

But the most recent case strikes close to home for the former Massachusetts governor. This week The Hill reported on several lawsuits that continue to follow Robert Lichfield, Romney’s co-chair of his Utah finance committee. Lichfield owns and operates boarding schools for troubled teens, but many former students are speaking out about their treatment while in school. From The Hill:

The complaint, which plaintiffs amended and resubmitted to the court last week, alleges children attending schools operated by Lichfield suffered abuses such as unsanitary living conditions; denial of adequate food; exposure to extreme temperatures; beatings; confinement in dog cages; and sexual fondling.

A second lawsuit filed by more than 25 plaintiffs in July in the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of New York alleges that Lichfield and several partners entered into a scheme to defraud them by operating an unlicensed boarding school in upstate New York. The suit does not allege physical or emotional abuse.

Read More →

It's been a banner week for Guantanamo Bay. First the Bush administration nixes reports that it plans to close the facility. Then the Defense Department announces a new detainee is on his way there. If that wasn't enough, according to a declaration filed in D.C. Circuit Court by a U.S. Army Reserve intelligence officer, the hearings that determine whether a detainee is properly classified as an "enemy combatant" are riddled with flaws.

Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Abraham was assigned to the Defense Department's Office for the Administrative Review of the Detention of Enemy Combatants (OARDEC) for six months in 2004 and 2005. In that capacity, Abraham worked closely with the administrative process known as a Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT) -- the one-time, non-legal hearing for Guantanamo detainees that establishes whether or not a detainee should be considered an enemy combatant fit for prolonged detention. Specifically, Abraham's role was to coordinate with intelligence agencies in and outside of the Defense Department to "gather or validate information" suitable to the CSRTs. And there, Abraham found that the CSRT process is skewed toward keeping detainees at Guantanamo.

Read More →

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) had his son, former state Senate President Ben Stevens, head a board that distributed $12 million in federal grants to promote seafood companies that, at the same time, paid the younger Stevens upward of $775,000 in "consulting fees."

This arrangement has caught the FBI's attention. Last fall, at least three fisheries were issued grand jury subpoenas to hand over documents related to the lobbying and consulting work provided by the younger Stevens and a former aide to Sen. Stevens, Trevor McCabe. The subpoenas also sought any documents connected to the older Stevens. Two of the companies are based in Seattle, and another is in Juneau.

Read More →

It's Friday afternoon. You know what that means: it's time for a senior Justice Department official to resign.

This time it's Acting Associate Attorney General William Mercer, who, not so coincidentally, was due to have a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee this coming Tuesday. Mercer is one of the senior DoJ officials Kyle Sampson claims to have consulted about the firings.

But rather than undergo an unpleasant round of questioning, Mercer has withdrawn his name from consideration and will return to his other job; he's the U.S. Attorney for Montana. Mercer -- much to the chagrin of the chief judge in his district -- has been pulling double duty since 2005. Considering that one of the supposed reasons for U.S. New Mexico David Iglesias' firing was that he was an "absentee landlord," Mercer was sure to have been asked about his own absenteeism.

Mercer follows the resignations of other DoJ purge figures Kyle Sampson, Monica Goodling, Michael Battle, Paul McNulty, and Michael Elston.

Earlier this month a statement signed by a Republican lawyer surfaced, tying Karl Rove to the prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman (D). (The affidavit is available here.)

With just a few days left before he faces a sentence of up to 30 years in prison, Siegelman released a statement highlighting how his case has raised a number of serious questions that have all gone unanswered. Siegelman was found guilty of pushing HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy to contribute $500,000 to a state lottery fund in exchange for reappointment to a hospital board. The first puzzle he lists is: Why was the wife of a well-known Republican operative who had worked on Siegelman's opponent's campaign allowed to initiate the investigation:

Why did Leura Canary get anywhere near my case knowing her husbands’ ties to my campaign opponents? Why did she have to be “outed” before her undocumented “recusal” after driving the case for 8 months?

In the affidavit of the Republican lawyer, Dana Jill Simpson, she makes this decision even more questionable. The affidavit is a description of a conference call amongst several top strategists on the Bob Riley (R) gubernatorial campaign in 2002. Simpson said they discussed possible ways to force Riley's opponent, Siegelman, to concede the hotly contested election.

Simpson said that GOP operative and friend to Rove, William Canary, mentioned he had spoken with Karl Rove about getting the Department of Justice on Siegelman. Canary also said his “girls would take care of him,” referring to two US attorneys in the state, one of whom is his wife, Leura Canary, who was responsible for the initial Seigelman investigation.

Read More →

Never in the history of the United States has anyone contended that the Vice President is outside the executive branch. Never. Not even during last call at a bar outside of the country's worst law school.

But then, in 2004, Dick Cheney needed to circumvent the National Archives' oversight of how his office handles classified information, and suddenly the vice president hovers in the constitutional equivalent of Purgatory, belonging to neither the executive nor the legislative branches. Poor Cactus Jack Garner: he thought the veep's job wasn't worth "a warm bucket of spit," when in fact the office bestrides constitutional governance like an all-powerful colossus.

It's hard to dignify Cheney's argument. But at her press conference today, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino managed to further undignify it, calling the question of the placement of the Vice President within the government " an interesting constitutional question that legal scholars can debate." To Perino, who generously conceded she is "not a lawyer," the role of the VP is "unique":

Let the debate begin.

Read More →

Rep. Tom Feeney (R-FL) filed papers with the House of Representatives establishing a legal defense fund earlier this week.

Federal investigators stepped up their probe of Feeney's ties to Jack Abramoff in April. Abramoff brought Feeney along on one of his infamous golf junkets to Scotland, this one in 2003. Feeney was one among three lawmakers on the trip -- the other two were ex-Reps. Bob Ney (R-OH) and Tom DeLay (R-TX).

As Roll Call reported in April, Feeney has made two payments totaling $23,000 to the law firm Patton Boggs for legal counsel to represent him for an ethics committee probe of the trip. The committee ruled in January that the trip was improper and fined Feeney $5,643. It would seem that Feeney needs more help paying to defend himself against possible criminal charges.

Via PoliticalMoneyLine.

Not only is Guantanamo Bay going to continue on as the U.S.'s offshore indefinite-detention facility in the war on terrorism, but it's expanding -- at least by one.

As Paul flagged in the Must Read, President Bush's war cabinet was scheduled to debate shuttering Guantanamo Bay this morning at the White House, but once word of the meeting leaked to the Associated Press, administration hardliners scratched Guantanamo from the agenda. And as if to underscore the surprising resilience of the island prison, this morning, the Defense Department announced that Haroon al-Afghani, an Afghan who has "admitted to serving as a courier for al-Qaeda Senior Leadership (AQSL)," will be Guantanamo's newest addition:

There is significant information available that Haroon al-Afghani is a senior commander of Hezb-e-Islami/Gulbuddin (HIG), a declared hostile terrorist group associated with AQ in Afghanistan and commanded multiple HIG terrorist cells that conducted improvised explosive device (IED) attacks in Nangarhar Province. He is assessed to have had regular contact with senior AQ and HIG leadership.

Since 2005, the number of detainees sent to Guantanamo Bay has slowed to a trickle. The largest recent addition came in September, when 14 "high-value" detainees transfered from CIA custody to the island facility. These days, detainees are more likely to be sent from Guantanamo to prisons in their home countries. As a result, the announcement of al-Afghani's arrival makes for some interesting timing.