(State Department Legal Adviser John Bellinger III outflanks Cheney Chief of Staff David Addington)
George Bush has just taken a first step, a big step in my view, in bringing America a notch back towards democracy by bringing all of America's "off the books" prisoners into the daylight and towards a more transparent legal process.
Much of the political left has missed the importance of what happened when President Bush interrupted soap operas on the networks on Wednesday and announced that America's secret prisons around the world would be emptied and fourteen highly significant prisoners tried for their crimes.
What much of the left has not realized is that the Cheney wing in national security circles -- including personalities like David Addington, John Bolton, Scooter Libby, and others -- is seething at some of the better souls in the administration. Real right wingers who would love to see a return of arbitrary justice, vigilanteism, and secret executions for those accused of terrorism are quite angry with the President and with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for the enlightened steps they are now taking.
John Bellinger III, the legal adviser to the Secretary of State, and a person Cheney chief-of-staff David Addington has on a regular attack hit list, has scored a huge and important victory over those in the administration who were the primary torture advocates and believers in non-transparent and arbitrary justice. Bellinger as well as State Department Counselor Philip Zelikow and Policy Planning Staff Principal Deputy Director and detainee legal issues expert Matthew Waxman and others have been working on a nine month campaign to bring America out of the secret gulag business -- and get the United States back on the path of legal process and legal norms.
Condoleezza Rice also deserves major credit because this was "finally" a hand she played well -- beating Cheney not in the interagency process where the Vice President's gang has the upper hand -- but rather turning her own intimate relationship into a campaign that mattered and which rolled back much of the extra-legal activity that Cheney and Attorney General Gonzalez had engineered.
George Bush's speech was oddly performed. It was the kind of speech that should have been given with Bush sitting at his desk and offered in a "deliberative tone" rather than with the rah-rah zest Bush gave it. The speech is better read than heard and is one of the most important presidential statements on law, and international law, that Bush has ever given.
Bush's acknowledgement of the importance of legal norms and of at least working to create a body of "international law" that covers new forms of combat and enemies America confronts is new and should be applauded. America's abandonment of transparent legal process in the past, when it came to fighting those engaged in terrorism, undermined America's moral credibility in the world.
The change in Bush's tone is clearly evident in these nearly last paragraphs of the speech:
As we work with Congress to pass a good bill, we will also consult with congressional leaders on how to ensure that the CIA program goes forward in a way that follows the law, that meets the national security needs of our country, and protects the brave men and women we ask to obtain information that will save innocent lives. For the sake of our security, Congress needs to act, and update our laws to meet the threats of this new era. And I know they will.
We're engaged in a global struggle -- and the entire civilized world has a stake in its outcome. America is a nation of law. And as I work with Congress to strengthen and clarify our laws here at home, I will continue to work with members of the international community who have been our partners in this struggle. I've spoken with leaders of foreign governments, and worked with them to address their concerns about Guantanamo and our detention policies. I'll continue to work with the international community to construct a common foundation to defend our nations and protect our freedoms.
As Dafna Linzer and Glenn Kessler report this morning in the Washington Post, an interagency consensus never fully developed behind this package of decisions that essentially brings the entire "black site" operation into the daylight. The State Department and CIA developed an unofficial alliance as CIA Director Michael Hayden and his team realized that they really wanted out of the secret detention business. Their operations were suffering in foreign countries and were always at risk because of host nation discomfort with the practice.
But the Linzer/Kessler article really does not document the level of animosity that existed between Addington, Cheney, and Attorney General Gonzalez -- all of whom have been major architects of America's darkest experiment with torture and legal inaccountability in managing America's 21st century terrorist foes. Cheney, in one of his regular private meetings with President Bush, did push the President to reject this step.
One insider has reported to TWN that Cheney and Addington really think that Bellinger and those pushing these reforms are going to be "partly responsible for a future terrorist attack."
American civil society and the legal profession should not be completely comfortable with the President's decision on detainees and the legal process they will now be subjected to. The transparency of the process could be more robust and the rights of these prisoners could be better rooted in past prisoner-of-war precedent. The "evidence through coercion" provisions make many uncomfortable.
However, the fundamental thing to acknowledge about this speech is that Bush is pulling the plug on much of Cheney's "war paradigm" operation that was subject to no accountability, where rules were made up on the fly, and from which there was no ultimate exit.
Even on the subject of military commissions -- another controversial subject -- the fact that the administration has offered a proposal to help shape debate and to give the Congress something on which to deliberate is better than the black and white debate that was occurring on these Commisions. Over the next couple of weeks, this subject was going to be taken up by the Congress in light of the Supreme Court's Hamdan decision.
Many critics will lobby against the kind of justice dispensed by military commissions and debate the President's plan -- but this kind of debate is healthy and was what Cheney was trying to preempt.
I had an email last night from one of the leading Muslim authorities on American detainee and rendition abuses. This person has done some of the best investigative work on America's secret prisons and on the direct and third party torture tactics that American authorities have deployed or requested from collaborating nations.
He got the importance of the Bush speech and wrote that Bush's decision was a huge step in the right direction, and maybe now America's "own 'darnkess at noon' nightmare would end."
-- Steve Clemons is Senior Fellow and Director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note.