Obama Through the Looking Glass

April 14, 2010

The withdrawal of Dawn Johnsen’s nomination to Head the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) at the Department of Justice in the same week that the White House publicly authorized the targeted killing of US national Anwar al-Awlaki marks a new low in the human rights record of the Obama administration.

Dawn Johnsen was acting Head of the OLC during the Clinton administration and is a respected law professor at Indiana University. No aspersions have been cast on her past performance in government or on her legal competence.

The principal complaint made against Johnson’s candidacy was that she raised her voice in protest at the Bush administration’s attempt to provide legal cover for torture. It was insinuated that this might make her soft on terrorism.

Johnsen’s withdrawal came within days of an appearance of the Head of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, Michael Sulick, at an event at Fordham University. In response to a question regarding the possible impact of the Obama administration’s prohibition on waterboarding Sulick commented:

“I don’t think we’ve suffered at all from an intelligence standpoint.”

So it would seem Johnsen’s stand was both principled and practical but rather than make this case both the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats opted instead to abandon her to the wolves.

What a contrast to the steadfast protection the principal authors of the torture memos, John Yoo and Jay Bybee, have received from the White House over the past fifteen months.

The President has resolutely stood fast against calls for a wide-ranging investigation into the torture practices of the Bush administration. A damning disciplinary report by the Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility was watered down to the point of meaninglessness.

The world has surely gone crazy when morally bankrupt lawyers can pervert the law and go on to high paying jobs in academia and the judicial circuit, but an individual who had the moral courage to criticize their behavior when others about her were running for cover has her career cut short.

The past eight years demonstrated all too graphically how important an organ of government the Office of Legal Counsel is. It can be a bulwark for liberty or a powerful instrument for abuse.

This is not a position for a consensus builder or a political weathervane. It is a position that requires unimpeachable integrity. It is a position that should be filled by a candidate who stood up for what was right when it was unfashionable to do so.

There are not many names left on that list.