Did Liz Cheney’s ‘Department Of Jihad’ Ad Backfire?

Has Liz Cheney damaged her cause, and her reputation, by running an ad that questioned the loyalties of Justice Department lawyers who defended Guantanamo detainees? After a barrage of attacks on the ad, including some from prominent conservatives, it’s worth asking the question.

Last week, Keep America Safe, the pro-torture advocacy group that Cheney co-chairs with Bill Kristol, ran a web ad that labeled seven DOJ lawyers who had previously represented detainees at Gitmo — or simply filed amicus briefs in their cases — “the Al Qaeda Seven.”“Whose values do they share,?” it asked, while flashing a picture of Osama Bin Laden. The ad also flashed a shot of a headline that appeared on a conservative website: “Department of Jihad.”

Here’s the ad:

Since then, the reaction — from conservatives, liberals, and just about everyone in between — has been swift:

• A statement signed by several leading conservative and Republican legal figures, — including Ken Starr, David Rivkin, Lee Casey, Bradford Berenson, Charles Stimson, Philip Zelikow, and John Berringer — called the attack “shameful,” as well as “both unjust to the individuals in question and destructive of any attempt to build lasting mechanisms for counterterrorism adjudications.” Rivkin and Casey have defended the Bush administration’s interrogation polices, including John Yoo’s “Torture Memos.” Stimson resigned as the Bush administration’s top detainee affairs official after suggesting on a radio show that companies not hire law firms providing pro bono services to detainees. Zelikow and Berringer were top advisers to Condoleezza Rice at the State Department. And Berenson was a lawyer in the Bush White House, and is a prominent spokesman for conservative legal causes.

• Starr continued the pushback on MSNBC’s Countdown, of all places, where he told Lawrence O’Donnell that Cheney’s attack was “very unwise, and really an out-of-bounds characterization and challenge to good, honorable lawyers.”

Watch Starr:

told Politico that lawyers who represent unpopular clients “do so honorably” — expressing the same view he did in 2007 when the issue was raised by others.

• The president of the American Bar Association called Cheney’s attack “a divisive and diversionary tactic,” which impugned “the character of lawyers who have sought to protect the fundamental rights of unpopular clients.”

• And CNN even acknowledged that its use of the “Department of Jihad” headline — with a question mark added — as a chyron was offensive.

It has also emerged that both the Bush administration and Rudy Giuliani’s law firm have employed lawyers who defended Gitmo detainees.

Aaron Harrison, a spokesman for Keep America Safe, pointed out that several conservatives — including former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen, and National Review writer Andrew McCarthy — have defended the ad, and he dismissed the criticism. “Conservatives and most Americans agree with us on the issues and getting criticized by a few Washington lawyers isn’t something we’re too concerned about,” he told TPMmuckraker.

But Cheney appears to have backed off the ad’s most strident message. She falsely told an interviewer this week that the ad “doesn’t question anyone’s loyalty.”

Despite her father’s deep unpopularity, Cheney has been eyed as a future GOP political candidate, and appears frequently as a conservative pundit on cable news. Whether the fallout from the ad will have a lasting effect on her reputation in conservative circles remains to be seen — and some observers are suggesting that the backlash is already on the wane.

But if nothing else, a precedent appears to have been set: Despite the efforts of some of Cheney’s defenders, a rough consensus appears to exist, spanning both sides of the political spectrum, that attacks on lawyers for representing unpopular clients run counter to the basic philosophical premise on which our system of justice rests, and deserve to be clearly denounced.

For helping to establish that starting point to the debate over detainment policy, perhaps Liz Cheney deserves our thanks.