Is The Holder-White House Fight For Real?

I won't claim to be sourced on the whole White House v. Department of Justice fight about whether to launch a criminal investigation into torture during the Bush era. Recent news reports have suggested that Attorney General Eric Holder is considering such an investigation and that the White House, which had inveighed against it, would prefer it not go forward. Newsweek's excellent piece by former colleague and friend, Dan Klaidman, portrayed Holder as an independent spirit who is deeply troubled by the facts surrounding the treatment of detainees and is inclined to launch a full-scale investigation to the chagrin of a president who has said that he'd rather look forward. The White House is said to be alarmed by Holder's independence but are they really?

The current news climate allows the president to have it both ways. An investigation of possible criminal misconduct on the part of his predecessors can go forward--appeasing the left and Congressional Demcrats who want nothing less--and he can shrug his shoulders and say that it's Holder's decision. Were it up to him, hey, we'd let bygones be bygones. To me, it's got a bit of the feel of a Jerome Robbins-choreographed fight from "West Side Story", or even Adam West and Burt Ward duking it out on the old "Batman" series. I believe the president wouldn't have wanted an investigation but once pressure for one grew, having Holder there as an escape valve makes things much easier for him.

One of the motivating factors for Holder, according to the Newsweek piece, is his role in the last-minute pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich at the end of the Clinton administration. It's hard to remember now what a scandal the pardon was and how it diminished the popularity of the outgoing president at the time. Former New York Sun Editor and Wall Street Journal writer Seth Lipsky made an interesting case for the Marc Rich pardon here.

I'm not sure I'd go so far as Lipsky to make the case for the pardon but it seemed to me to be a much closer call than it was largely portrayed. International politics played a role, too. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was one of those pleading for Rich's release at the time. The Clinton White House, which had just seen the collapse of the possibility of a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement, wanted to be able to help Barak, and the pardon of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, who had passed American secrets on to Israel, was out of the question. Pardoning Rich helped strengthen Barak. Clinton made his case for the pardons here.

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Matthew Cooper is a managing editor (White House) for National Journal.

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