Secrets of the Justice Department

So much for American values. The U.S. government had officially endorsed torture, in secret, of course.
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Former Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales' reign in the Bush Justice Department is a sorry story that just won't end.

If you thought the scandals of the Gonzales Justice Department were a thing of the past, here comes today's extraordinary New York Times article revealing that the reality of the Bush-Gonzales Justice Department vastly exceeded what others might only dream up in their most creative fiction.

Recall what happened in December 2004. After intense criticism from advocacy groups and prolonged political wrangling, the Bush administration categorically declared, "Torture is abhorrent both to American law and values and to international norms."

Well, it turns out that shortly after Gonzales took office two months later, his Justice Department served up another, contrary opinion. But this one was in secret and, as the Times reports, "It was a very different expansive endorsement of the harshest interrogation techniques ever used by the Central Intelligence Agency." The new, secret opinion "for the first time provided explicit authorization to barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics, including head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures."

So much for American values. The U.S. government had officially endorsed torture, in secret, of course. It was the act of a duplicitous, manipulative and shameless administration hiding its total disregard of the rule of law and American values. Later that year, yet another secret torture memo was issued, declaring that none of the CIA's interrogation methods violated the "cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment Congress was moving to outlaw -- clearly a cynical attempt to shield those who tortured people in American custody from criminal liability and perpetuate the administration's secret and abhorrent practice of torturing detainees.

As the Times piece chronicles, these memos are the direct products of the machinations of an administration that basically "shopped" for the torture legal opinions it sought -- discarding attorneys who were not compliant, and holding close those who rubberstamped the views of Vice President Cheney by coming up with legal justifications -- no matter how far-fetched -- for torturing people.

The first 2005 secret memo was approved by Gonzales over the strong objections of Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey, who by then was on his way out because he had committed the offense of standing up for the rule of law in the Gonzales Justice Department. Comey warned his colleagues that they would all be "ashamed" when the world eventually learned of the secret endorsement of torture.

The secret is now out, but I doubt Gonzales is ashamed, because since September 11, he and President Bush have pushed and scraped and contorted every logic of law to run roughshod over our Constitution. Their contempt for human rights and civil liberties, however, are typically in softer focus than in the memos revealed today.

The revelations make it clear that it's long past time to clean up the Justice Department. At a minimum, here's what the administration must do to try to blot the latest stain on the office of the attorney general:

* Appoint an independent special counsel to investigate what appears to be an extensive, long-term pattern of misusing Justice Department authority to insulate individuals from criminal prosecution for torture and abuse. * If appropriate, follow up on that investigation by prosecuting anyone who violated federal laws that protect detainees against torture and abuse or are in violation of U.S. obligations under international law. * Make public all Justice Department documents permitting the use of any interrogation or detention practices that are not authorized by the Army Field Manual on Interrogations, as well as any documents interpreting or analyzing any legal prohibitions on torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

In the meantime, it is critically important that attorney general-designate Michael Mukasey categorically repudiate the torture memos.

America's next attorney general must take seriously his duty as our nation's chief law enforcement officer and honor his oath to uphold the Constitution. He must think and act independently of the White House. And he must swear under oath to reject these repugnant, secret torture memos, so that we can start to regain some semblance of law and order in the Department that is supposed to stand for those values -- but in this administration has too often stood for just the opposite.

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