Nine former Bush administration officials who played major roles in shaping counterterrorism policies today released a statement condemning as “shameful” recent attacks by Liz Cheney’s advocacy group on Justice Department lawyers who had previously represented Guantánamo detainees.
The statement—whose signers include top lawyers at the Bush White House, Justice Department, and Pentagon—was in response to an inflammatory Web ad by Cheney’s group, Keep America Safe, that demanded to know the identities of those it called “the Al Qaeda 7”—a reference to Obama Justice Department lawyers who had done pro bono work on behalf of Guantánamo detainees.
The ad, which Liz Cheney has vigorously defended on TV, even showed a frame with a headline referring to Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department as the “Department of Jihad.” The narrator asks in ominous tones about the lawyers: “Whose values do they share?”
When he first saw the ad, “I was disgusted,” said Charles “Cully” Stimson, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs under President Bush, who was among those who signed the statement.
“The past several days have seen a shameful series of attacks on attorneys in the Department of Justice who, in previous legal practice, either represented Guantanamo detainees or advocated for changes to detention policy,” said the statement, distributed by Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “As attorneys, former officials and policy specialists who have worked on detention issues, we consider these attacks both unjust to the individuals in question and destructive of any attempt to build lasting mechanisms for counterterrorism adjudications.”
The letter further notes that “the American tradition of zealous representation of unpopular clients is at least as old as John Adams’s representation of the British soldiers charged in the Boston massacre …To suggest the Justice Department should not employ talented lawyers who have advocated on behalf of detainees maligns the patriotism of people who have taken honorable positions on contested questions and demands a uniformity of background and view in government service from which no administration would benefit.”
Among the signers of Wittes’s letter are a virtual “who’s who” of officials who worked on counterterrorism policies under President Bush. In addition to Stimson, they include: John Bellinger, former chief counsel to the National Security Council and the State Department; Larry Thompson, former deputy attorney general; Charles Rosenberg, former chief of staff at the Justice Department; Peter Keisler, former assistant attorney general at the civil division and the official who was in charge of representing the government in cases brought by Guantánamo detainees; Daniel Dell’Orto, former general counsel at the Pentagon; Matthew Waxmann, former deputy assistant secretary of defense in charge of detainee affairs; and Bradford Berenson, former White House associate counsel.
Other prominent signers include former solicitor general and Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr, as well as David Rivkin and Lee Casey, two former top lawyers in the administration of President George H.W. Bush who had been outspoken defenders of the counterterrorism policies of George W. Bush.
Stimson was perhaps the most surprising signer. He resigned as the top Pentagon official in charge of detainee policy in 2007 after he was quoted as saying he found it “shocking” that major U.S. law firms represented Gitmo detainees free of charge; he also said those firms likely would suffer financially when their corporate clients realized who else they represented. But Stimson pointed out in an interview Monday that he quickly apologized for those comments. He thinks that ads like the one distributed by Liz Cheney’s group are “below the belt,” he said, because they “question the integrity” of lawyers for representing their clients.
The letter comes just days after Declassified reported that two other former Bush administration lawyers—former solicitor general Ted Olson, and Jack Goldsmith, former chief of the Office of Legal Counsel—had also decried the ad.
Asked for comment today, Aaron Harison, a spokesman for Keep America Safe, referred Declassified to a blog posting over the weekend by William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, who serves with Liz Cheney as a co-director of the advocacy organization.
In the post, Kristol wrongly attributes the Wittes statement to Human Rights Watch:
“Speaking of those working at Justice: THE WEEKLY STANDARD has learned that another left-wing advocacy group, Human Rights Watch, is circulating a letter condemning what the letter describes as ‘a shameful series of attacks on attorneys in the Department of Justice … ’The Human Rights Watch letter mischaracterizes the ‘attacks’…”
Kristol says the main issue raised by the ad is whether Congress and the public “are simply entitled to know who these lawyers are, and the question of whether former pro bono lawyers for terrorists should be working on detainee policy for the Justice Department.” (The Justice Department has acknowledged there are a total of nine lawyers who previously did work for Gitmo detainees, but only released the names of two—one of whom was Neal Katyal, the deputy solicitor general who, as Declassified pointed out, recently argued a hardline position in federal court against granting legal rights to accused terrorists at Bagram, Afghanistan. Justice officials say most of the other seven are relatively mid- or junior-level lawyers, and all are conforming to Justice ethics policies that prevent them from working on cases they might have been involved with in the private sector.)
Wittes said that while he did discuss the letter with one top Human Rights Watch official, Tom Malinowski, the letter he distributed over the weekend was his own project and is “in no sense a Human Rights Watch letter.”
“No, I am not now nor have I ever been affiliated with Human Rights Watch,” he added in an e-mail.
Reached Monday, Kristol said he assumed it was a Human Rights Watch letter because he heard about it from somebody who had been approached to sign it by Malinowski of Human Rights Watch. "I didn't know it was Ben Wittes's letter. If Ben Wittes said he wrote it, that's fine. I don't want to spend the week litigating this."
Meanwhile, the Keep America Safe ad picked up another defender—former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen, recently hired as a new op-ed columnist by The Washington Post. In a column for tomorrow's paper, he writes: "Would most Americans want to know if the Justice Department hired a bunch of mob lawyers and put them in charge of mob cases? Or a group of drug cartel lawyers and put them in charge of drug cases? Would they want their elected representatives to find out who these lawyers were, which mob bosses and drug lords they had worked for, and what roles they were now playing at the Justice Department? Of course they would—and rightly so."