Judging Judge Mukasey
Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee will consider Judge Michael Mukasey’s nomination as the nation’s next Attorney General. Several senators on the committee have already expressed hope for a successful confirmation. “I want him to succeed,” said committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT). But at the same time, the Senate will not “support someone blindly,” noted Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). While Mukasey has a strong legal and national security background, questions remain as to whether he would stand up to the President and ensure that the Justice Department is independent of White House political influence. For example, although he has shown a “willingness to stand up to the powerful,” Mukasey has demonstrated a disturbing tendency on issues such as wiretapping to grant the government “the benefit of the doubt.” As the Alliance for Justice notes, “Candid responses and complete answers by Judge Mukasey, both about his legal views and his plans for the future of the Department, could be the first step in the long road towards rebuilding the tattered reputation of an institution historically revered for its independence.”
HARSH TORTURE TECHNIQUES: A “major focus” of the hearings will center around a secret 2005 Justice Department memo endorsing “the harshest interrogation techniques ever used by the CIA,” despite a public statement by the Department in 2004 declaring that torture was “abhorrent.” “I understand that he’ll [Mukasey] say he’s against torture,” Leahy told reporters on Tuesday. “I want him to make it very clear that will be the legal policy of this country; not to say publicly, ‘We’re against torture,’ but then out the back door issue a legal opinion saying we can torture.” Mukasey has already indicated some support for the Bush administration’s torture policies. In a September meeting with conservatives, Mukasey reportedly said “he understood the need for the CIA to use some ‘enhanced’ interrogation techniques.” In Oct. 2001, a Jordanian detainee who “had been beaten in the federal detention center in Manhattan, producing bruises that were hidden beneath his orange prison jumpsuit,” came before Mukasey’s court. The New York Times reported that Mukasey seemed “little concerned,” commenting, “As far as the claim that he was beaten, I will tell you that he looks fine to me.” As Marjorie Cohn of the National Lawyers Guild points out, one question for Mukasey today is, “Can you think of any circumstance under which it would be lawful to torture a prisoner in US custody?”
SECRET DETENTIONS: The Senate Judiciary Committee also needs to take a look at Mukasey’s record on detainees and ask whether he will “independently review the constitutionality of ongoing programs, such as electronic eavesdropping and CIA rendition camps,” according to Duke University professor Erwin Chemerinsky. Mukasey has urged Congress to “fix a strained and mismatched legal system” that allowed the “FBI to detain, without charges, an estimated 70 people” after 9/11. All but one of those detained were Muslim, and at least 28 of them were never charged with a crime. But as chief trial judge in Manhattan at that time, Mukasey approved such secret warrants and sharply criticized a fellow U.S. District Court judge “who ruled that warrants issued in the post-Sept. 11 roundup was an illegitimate use of the law.” “Is he going to take steps to make sure that we don’t have another roundup like that?” asked ACLU legislative counsel Chris Anders. Mukasey has also indicated that he believes “protections accorded defendants in the ordinary criminal process may not be appropriate in terrorism cases.”
EXPANDED WIRETAPPING POWERS: Today, the House will consider legislation to limit the president’s wiretapping powers, despite objections from the White House. As Jack Goldsmith, former head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, writes in his new book, the administration’s aim has been to get “rid of that obnoxious [FISA] court.” According to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), Mukasey has indicated a willigness to conduct an independent review of the Bush administration’s wiretapping program. But in the past, Mukasey has shown some support for the Bush administration’s spying policies. For example, in 2000, he said that the nation’s choice “is either to have no surveillance at all or to have totally uncontrolled surveillance…the existing system is a compromise that Congress was forced to make.” In 2004, he “dismissed fears of the government’s ability to subpoena tangible things like business records.” Mukasey wrote that “the hidden message in the structure of the Constitution is that the government it establishes is entitled…to receive from its citizens the benefit of the doubt.” He also endorsed the Patriot Act, noting that its “awkward name” may “very well be the worst thing about the statute.”
IRAQ — HOUSE CONDEMNS STATE DEPARTMENT FOR SILENCE ON IRAQ CORRUPTION: Yesterday, the House overwhelmingly passed a resolution by a vote of 395-21 criticizing the State Department for refusing to answer questions about corruption in the Iraqi government. Reps. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and John Tierney (D-MA) introduced the bill last week after holding hearings at which State Department officials refused to respond to allegations made by federal investigators of “widespread corruption” in Iraq. The resolution condemns the State Department for “withholding from Congress and the American people information about the extent of corruption in the Maliki government…for retroactively classifying documents that had been widely distributed previously as unclassified, and [for] directing its employees not to answer questions in an open forum.” Previously, several House chairmen wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice calling for “honest answers” about corruption in Iraq. The resolution garnered broad, bipartisan support, with 171 Republicans voting in favor it. “The vote is purely symbolic, but the lopsided tally represents a stark departure for President Bush’s most loyal constituency in Washington.”
CONGRESS — McCONNELL CAUGHT LYING ABOUT SCHIP SMEAR CAMPAIGN: Last Thursday, media reports revealed that Don Stewart, the communications director for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), sent an e-mail pushing reporters to cover the right-wing smear campaign of 12-year old State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) recipient Graeme Frost. But the next day, McConnell claimed his office was not involved. “What was the deal with the e-mail from your staffer?” a local reporter asked McConnell. “There was no involvement whatsoever [from my staff] … None,” responded McConnell. The right wing continues to push this smear campaign in order to slander the popular children’s health program. This week, TrueMajorityAction released an ad featuring two-year old Bethany Wilkerson, who was born with a serious heart problem and received health insurance through the SCHIP program. Like the Frost family, the Wilkerson family has already become the subject of right-wing attacks. “The issue really at hand is one of bad behavior,” said the National Review’s Mark Hemingway. Heralding the arrival of a “new toddler-aged human shield,” right-wing blogger Michelle Malkin writes that “the Wilkersons made a choice.”
ETHICS — BLACKWATER CEO REJECTS IDEA OF BEING GOVERNED BY IRAQI LAW: In an interview with the conservative Washington Times, Blackwater USA CEO Erik Prince said bluntly, “We will not let our people be taken by the Iraqis.” Prince was referring to the Blackwater employees suspected of killing 17 Iraqi civilians on Sept. 16; an Iraqi investigation recommended charging the contractors with murder. Prince said that “a valid Iraqi court system where Westerners could get a fair trail” simply did not exist. Prince’s statements come as the New York Times reports that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is pressing for contractors working in Iraq “to fall under a single authority, most likely the American military, in an effort to bring Blackwater under tighter control. … That idea is facing resistance from the State Department, which relies heavily for protection in Iraq on some 2,500 private guards, including more than 800 Blackwater contractors.” “It’s very important that we do everything in our power to make sure that people who are under contract to us…are conducting themselves in a way that makes them an asset in this war in Iraq and not a liability,” Gates said.
ECONOMY — FEDERAL RESERVE TEMPERS OPTIMISM ON HOUSING CRUNCH: This week, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said that the housing slump will be a “significant drag” on U.S. growth into next year. He said that while credit markets have improved, a full recovery will take time “and we may well see some setbacks.” This assessment offers a far more pessimistic view than earlier sentiments released by Federal Reserve. In June, Bernanke called the collapse of the subprime mortgage market an “adjustment” and said that “the troubles in the subprime sector seem unlikely to seriously spill over to the broader economy or the financial system.” Just last month, the Federal Reserve repeated his assurances that the overall economy was protected from the troubles of the housing market. “Outside of real estate, reports that the turmoil in financial markets had affected economic activity during the survey period were limited,” a Sept. 5 Federal Reserve report said. As early as June, the Center for American Progress pointed out that “all the data suggest that Bernanke might be overly optimistic.”
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) said he was not prepared to grant retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies for their participation in the warrantless wiretapping program. “I certainly would not give them immunity retroactively on programs that we don’t know what they are,” he said.
The White House agreed yesterday to give Senate intelligence committee members and staff access to internal documents related to its domestic surveillance program. But Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said that when one of her staff members reviewed the documents, “he wasn’t impressed.”
In another rebuke of the Bush administration’s stem cell policy, National Institutes of Health Director Elias Zerhouni said, “All avenues of research need to be pursued.” White House spokesman Tony Fratto responded that President Bush has a “broader view” than scientists, which takes into account “moral and religious views.“
Brookings analyst Michael O’Hanlon commended Democratic presidential candidates for refusing to commit to withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq by 2013. “The only thing that would have concerned me would have been a repeat of 2003, where the populist’s message of ‘get out now’ would overtake the Democratic Party,” he said.
24 percent: President Bush’s approval rating in a new Reuters/Zogby poll, which sets yet another record low for the President.
Prior to his confirmation hearing today, Attorney General nominee Mike Mukasey will be introduced “before the cameras” by a “tripartisan” group of senators: Sens. Arlen Specter (R-PA), Charles Schumer (D-NY), and Joe Lieberman (I-CT).
In a special election yesterday, Niki Tsongas (D), the wife of the late Sen. Paul Tsongas (D), beat out Republican Jim Ogonowski to fill former Rep. Martin Meehan’s (D-MA) vacant 5th district House seat, “becoming the first woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress in nearly 25 years.”
And finally: Colbert throws his hat in the ring. On the Daily Show last night, comedian Stephen Colbert “made a surprise appearance” to officially announce he was considering a run for president. About 20 minutes later on his own show, Colbert announced “Yes, I’m doing it!” He then welcomed CBS political analyst Jeff Greenfield to analyze his impact on the race “in the past three minutes.”
Air passengers will no longer have to remove headwear such as turbans at screening checkpoints “if doing so makes them uncomfortable,” according to a revised federal guideline effective Oct. 27.
VIRGINIA: State panel rejects proposal to create the country’s first state-run facility where arrested undocumented immigrants could be detained “until federal officials deport them or while awaiting trial.”
UTAH: State may see a $400 million surplus next year, “fueling a tax-cut debate when lawmakers convene in mid-January.”
MISSOURI: Gov. Matt Blunt (R) sends $250,000 in state tax credits to “one of the leading anti-abortion organizations in the region.”
THINK PROGRESS: Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly claims the Abu Ghraib scandal was “blown out of proportion.”
RAW STORY: National Counterterrorism Center chief says the United States is not “tactically” safer as a result of the Iraq war.
TPM ELECTION CENTRAL: Mitt Romney’s new national security adviser says he would torture someone “in a heartbeat.”
YEAS AND NAYS: Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID) falsely claims he has “never used the Internet.”
“[T]here’s more to the story on the kid (Graeme Frost) that did the Dems’ radio response on SCHIP. … Could the Dems really have done that bad of a job vetting this family?”
— Don Stewart, communications director for Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), 10/11/07, encouraging reporters to cover the Graeme Frost smear campaign
“There was no involvement whatsoever. … None.”
— McConnell, 10/12/07, on the extent of his staff’s involvement in the smear campaign