Opening Argument – Law Should Trump Loyalty

National Journal

For all the partisan bitterness in the air and the messes that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has made, it shouldn’t be that hard for President Bush to replace him with someone far, far more effective. Nor should it be hard to get a conservative Republican nominee of quality confirmed without giving away the store to Democrats or weakening the presidency.

In particular, the right nominee could get through the Senate without caving in to the demands of some Democrats that a special prosecutor be appointed to investigate the White House role in the firings of nine U.S. attorneys, or that Bush abandon his claims of executive privilege.

The big question, at this writing, is whether a president who so clearly values lapdog loyalty over competence, integrity, and independence can bring himself to invert those priorities.

If the nominee inspires bipartisan trust, who needs special prosecutors with their built-in bias toward investigative overkill? The amazingly still-unexplained U.S. attorney firings do smell fishy and do need to be investigated energetically. But this ain’t Watergate. The American people get that.

There is, to be sure, something to the complaint by David Rivkin and Lee Casey, in an August 29 Wall Street Journal op-ed, that "the only unifying theme congressional Democrats have exhibited since taking control last January is an unremitting hostility toward President Bush in particular, and executive power in general."

Any nominee will face a tough confirmation hearing.

But even those Senate Democrats most eager to rub Bush’s nose in the dirt understand that if they come off as obstructionist, or beat the tired "special prosecutor" drum too incessantly, the electorate will punish them. And their hostility to executive power is tempered by their confidence that it will belong to them as of January 20, 2009.

The key is for Bush to pick an exceptionally able nominee with the stature to inspire bipartisan confidence that his or her loyalty to the president’s policy agenda would be qualified by the resolve to say no when the law so requires — and by a deep understanding that the president’s word is not the law and his broad wartime powers are not unlimited.

After a day or two of doing the nominee equivalent of Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope — as the conservative John Roberts did so brilliantly two years ago en route to winning confirmation as chief justice — the right choice would be confirmed.

Why would a person of such quality want to be a caretaker for this lamest of lame-duck presidents? Maybe because he or she could be far more than a caretaker. A good attorney general could play a major role in steering toward pragmatic, bipartisan solutions on issues of huge consequence to the nation, such as the coming donnybrooks over surveillance and detention of suspected terrorists.

On the other hand, if Bush can’t bring himself to choose a nominee of proven ability, integrity, and independence — three traits shared by none of this president’s closest associates — then he will deserve a drubbing in the confirmation process, and he will get one.

Indeed, now would be the ideal time for Senate Democrats to channel their partisan energies into establishing a new bipartisan tradition: Never again should the Senate confirm anyone to head the Justice Department who has not demonstrated in advance a capacity to put the rule of law ahead of the will of the president. No more Al Gonzaleses. And no more Bobby Kennedys, either.

Gonzales, who should have been rejected, was confirmed in February 2005 by 60-36, with the votes of six Democrats, even though it was obvious then that he was not exceptionally able and was a bad bet to transcend his record as a loyal, sometimes lawless servant to the man who had plucked him from obscurity. While Democrats control the Senate (barely), at least as many would support a good nominee now as supported a bad nominee in 2005.

Indeed, in the long run the right nominee would bolster a presidency that has paradoxically been weakened by the Bush approach of claiming almost unlimited, unilateral wartime powers and using secrecy to circumvent the checks and balances established by the Constitution. Bush and Gonzales have claimed the powers:

•Not only to seize any person on earth, anywhere on earth, on suspicion of being an "enemy combatant" but also to imprison that person incommunicado for years, with no judicial review or semblance of due process.

•To torture such people wholesale, in violation of international treaties and an act of Congress making torture a crime (although Bush has stopped just short of explicitly authorizing torture).

•To try them before "military commissions" with the power to impose penalties including death with no independent judicial review.

•To secretly defy for more than five years a partly outdated law making it a crime to conduct foreign-intelligence wiretaps without judicial warrants, instead of working with Congress to update the law.

•To invade Iraq without consulting Congress (a power that Gonzales claimed, though Bush ended up seeking and getting congressional authorization).

It is these overreaching Bush-Cheney-Gonzales claims of executive power that have brought the administration a succession of rebuffs from the courts, including all three of the big Supreme Court decisions on terrorism issues since 9/11.

Bush did persuade the then-Republican Congress to change the laws on which two of the justices’ decisions were based. But the Court is widely expected to hand Bush yet another big loss in a pending challenge to the sharp curbs on judicial review of "enemy combatant" detentions that Bush pushed through Congress. A decision striking down those curbs could pave the way for excessively intrusive judicial oversight over wartime detentions — a regime that Congress might lack the power to override. The right attorney general could avert such an outcome by working with Congress to provide better due process safeguards and better judicial review before the justices decide the pending case. If Bush balks at such an approach, he will have only himself to blame for weakening the presidency yet again.

Meanwhile, earlier this year a special court plausibly construed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in a way that crippled for months the government’s ability to monitor the many overseas communications among possible foreign terrorists that happen to pass through American switches. Congress, which fixed this problem at least temporarily in early August, would gladly have fixed it years before but for the administration’s pigheaded insistence on acting unilaterally and in secret.

What would have happened if we had had a good attorney general over the past six years, and a president with the sense to follow good advice?

Bush would have won all of the court cases mentioned earlier. The legal (and international) legitimacy of presidential detentions of enemy combatants would have been bolstered by due process protections against error, ideally prescribed by legislation. The administration would have done far better in world opinion by drawing a sharp line between illegal torture and appropriately aggressive, even coercive interrogation. The president could have easily persuaded Congress to bring the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act into the Internet age in late 2001 or 2002. Gonzales would not have been tempted to invade a hospital room in March 2004 in an unsuccessful attempt to arm-twist the very sick then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to certify the legality of surveillance practices that Ashcroft’s expert subordinates had found to be illegal. And, in my view, we would all be safer.

Jamie Gorelick, who was deputy attorney general under President Clinton, was exactly right on The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer on August 28: "The way you get greater executive power is by making sure that the other two branches of government trust you. And they won’t trust you if you are not transparent with them, if you do not share with them the information to which they are entitled. If you do, particularly in the area of national security, there will be tremendous deference. It is my view that by claiming the right to do everything unilaterally, you ultimately undermine the actual quotient of power that you end up with. I believe that the posture the Justice Department has taken actually is going to end up weakening executive power."

Not many members of the two other branches of government trust Alberto Gonzales. One measure of his effectiveness in helping the president to discharge his duty to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed" is the recent exodus from the 110,000-person department of Gonzales’s deputy attorney general, acting associate attorney general, chief of staff, the deputy’s chief of staff, the White House liaison, the head of the Office of Legislative Affairs, and the chief and deputy chief of the Civil Rights Division, not to mention the career officials who have left in disgust and the talented potential replacements who don’t want to work for a political hack.

Fortunately, the right nominee — make that nominees — could make a good start at repairing the damage.