Keeping America Safe -- And Ugly Toward Its Lawyers

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Are we really back here again, in ugliness, dishonor and hypocrisy? Of course we are.

Four years ago, senior Bush administration officials fired nine diligent, competent, respected, Republican-appointed federal prosecutors because they were deemed insufficiently conservative to be trusted with such high office. It was a disgrace and the resulting scandal, which we now know as the U.S. Attorney scandal, set back the Justice Department for years.

Now another nine government lawyers, this time Democrat-appointed ones, are under siege by some of the very same conservative operatives who devoured their own in 2005 and 2006. Why? Because the new public servants, respected lawyers all, have been deemed by these self-proclaimed avatars of truth to be insufficiently patriotic, or "American", to be given a role at Justice after having represented some of the terror suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. What a low moment in the country's legal history.

No one has yet stepped forward to cast legitimate shadows on the work of the decent men and women who were so carelessly discarded by the Bush White House during its second term. And, from what we can gather, the Obama administration's new lawyers (culled from some of the most respected law firms in the country) would honor any courtroom in which they appeared. They deserve praise, not scorn, for their professional conduct before entering government. The country needs more -- not fewer -- people like this in Washington.

But none of that matters to Liz Cheney and Company. Unrepentant about their eight-year-long assault upon the rule of law, these conservative zealots now seek to attack the integrity of some of the legal system's bravest messengers and interpreters. Having largely failed to persuade the American people to abandon core consitutional principles in the name of marginally better security, having succeeded mostly in ensuring Gitmo's status as a ugly symbol against us, these people now want to extort big companies, big law firms, and the Justice Department itself, into political submission.

In their America, another America far apart from the one they teach about in law school, a lawyer who upholds an oath and represents an unpopular client is: 1) assumed to share the views or that client; 2) assumed to be in a conspiracy with the client, and; 3) assumed to be using his or her position as counsel for the purpose of subverting our national security. Now a lawyer is a mobster, or a terrorist, or just plain un-American because the lawyer happens to be working for the government after working for clients who sought to benefit from the government's laws. There is no To Kill A Mockingbird in this dark, cynical America. And no Gideon's Trumpet, either.

This is how associative guilt works in the 21st century. The lawyer who upholds an oath and represents an unpopular client is a traitor. And the lawyer's firm is suspect, too, as is are the companies which hire the firm for a completely unrelated matter. Now we have patriotic law firms and unpatriotic ones; now we have "patriotic" people who are to root out the private motives and public arguments of "unpatriotic" lawyers. Now a fair (and, as we have seen, necessary) defense of the Bill of Rights is considered treasonous or at best worthy of discredit and the loss of a job.

And all of it brought to you by the same people whose corruption of the truth -- on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, on secret torture, on Iraq's role in 9/11 -- already is evident for all the world to see. All of it brought to you by men and women who did more to undermine the rule of law during their reign than any nine mid-level Justice Department lawyers could ever hope to achieve even if they wanted to. Good Lord, even Charles "Cully" Stimson, the odious Bush official who blessedly lost his job a few years ago over his own creepy effort at guilt by association, apparently believes the current group of miscreants has gone too far. When it comes to trashing law firms for their pro bono work, once you've lost Cully, you've really lost your way.  

The gall of it all, of course, is that the very hacks and cronies who now cry out for accountability from the Obama administration sounded a far different tune in 2007, when the U.S. Attorney scandal was in full bloom. Back then, the buzzwords about nine govenrment lawyers were executive privilege, secrecy, and political discretion. That's why Attorney General Eric Holder ought to immediately declare his terms: he should tell Liz Cheney that he'll hand over to her the information she seeks the day she gets her father, and Karl Rove and Harriet Miers and Alberto Gonzales for that matter, to give the American people a full, fair, and under oath accounting of the U.S. Attorney scandal.

That ought to quiet down her mob for a bit, don't you think?

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, 60 Minutes' first-ever legal analyst, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. He is also chief analyst for CBS Radio News and has won a Murrow Award as one of the nation's leading legal journalists. More

Cohen is the winner of the American Bar Association’s 2012 Silver Gavel Award for his Atlantic commentary about the death penalty in America and the winner of the Humane Society’s 2012 Genesis Award for his coverage of the plight of America’s wild horses. A racehorse owner and breeder, Cohen also is a two-time winner of both the John Hervey and O’Brien Awards for distinguished commentary about horse racing.

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