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Context of 'February 2, 2009: Attorney General Nominee Says He Will Review Bush Uses of ‘State Secrets’ Privilege, Curtail Use in Obama Administration'

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Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales tells an NPR reporter that he never allowed the Justice Department (DOJ) to become politicized, and that he believes the historical judgment of his tenure in the department will be favorable. He acknowledges making some errors, including failing to properly oversee the DOJ’s push to fire nine US attorneys in 2008, a process many believe was orchestrated by the White House with the involvement of Gonzales and then-White House political guru Karl Rove.
Failure to Engage - “No question, I should have been more engaged in that process,” he says, but adds that he is being held accountable for decisions made by his subordinates. “I deeply regret some of the decisions made by my staff,” he says, referring to his former deputy Paul McNulty, who resigned over the controversy after telling a Senate committee that the attorney firings were performance-related and not politically motivated. Gonzales says his then-chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, was primarily responsible for the US attorney review process and for working with McNulty. “If Paul McNulty makes a recommendation to me—if a recommendation includes his views—I would feel quite comfortable that those would be good recommendations coming to me” about the qualifications of the US attorneys under question, Gonzales says. He adds that he has “seen no evidence” that Rove or anyone at the White House tried to use the US attorneys to politicize the work at the DOJ. A review by the DOJ’s Inspector General found that the firing policy was fundamentally flawed, and that Gonzales was disengaged and had failed to properly supervise the review process.
Claims He Was Unfairly Targeted by 'Mean-Spirited' Washington Insiders - Gonzales says he has been unfairly held responsible for many controversial Bush administration policies, including its refusal to abide by the Geneva Conventions (see Late September 2001, January 9, 2002, January 18-25, 2002, January 25, 2002, August 1, 2002, November 11, 2004, and January 17, 2007) and its illegal eavesdropping on US citizens (see Early 2004, March 9, 2004, December 19, 2005, Early 2006, and February 15, 2006), because of his close personal relationship with former President Bush. Washington, he says, is a “difficult town, a mean-spirited town.” He continues: “Sometimes people identify someone to target. That’s what happened to me. I’m not whining. It comes with the job.”
Visiting Ashcroft at the Hospital - In 2004, Gonzales, then the White House counsel, and White House chief of staff Andrew Card raced to the bedside of hospitalized Attorney General John Ashcroft to persuade, or perhaps coerce, Ashcroft to sign off on a secret government surveillance program (see March 10-12, 2004). The intervention was blocked by Deputy Attorney General James Comey (see March 12-Mid-2004). Gonzales says he has no regrets about the incident: “Neither Andy nor I would have gone there to take advantage of somebody who was sick. We were sent there on behalf of the president of the United States.” As for threats by Justice Department officials to resign en masse over the hospital visit (see Late March, 2004), Gonzales merely says, “Lawyers often disagree about important legal issues.”
Warning about Plain Speaking - Gonzales says Obama’s attorney general nominee, Eric Holder, should refrain from making such statements as Holder made last week when he testified that waterboarding is torture. “One needs to be careful in making a blanket pronouncement like that,” Gonzales says, adding that such a statement might affect the “morale and dedication” of intelligence officials and lawyers who are attempting to make cases against terrorism suspects. [National Public Radio, 1/26/2009]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Eric Holder, Bush administration (43), Andrew Card, Alberto R. Gonzales, Geneva Conventions, George W. Bush, James B. Comey Jr., Karl C. Rove, Paul J. McNulty, D. Kyle Sampson

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Attorney General-nominee Eric Holder says that if he is confirmed, he intends to review current litigation in which the Bush administration asserted the so-called “state secrets” privilege (see March 9, 1953), and that he intends to minimize the use of the privilege during his tenure. “I will review significant pending cases in which DOJ [the Justice Department] has invoked the state secrets privilege, and will work with leaders in other agencies and professionals at the Department of Justice to ensure that the United States invokes the state secrets privilege only in legally appropriate situations,” he writes in a response to pre-confirmation questions. (Shortly after Holder’s testimony, the Justice Department again asserts the “state secrets” privilege in a case involving a Guantanamo detainee—see February 9, 2009). Holder adds: “I firmly believe that transparency is a key to good government. Openness allows the public to have faith that its government obeys the law.” To a related question, he asserts his belief that the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) must disclose as many of the opinions it generates as possible: “Once the new assistant attorney general in charge of the Office of Legal Counsel is confirmed, I plan to instruct that official to review the OLC’s policies relating to publication of its opinions with the [objective] of making its opinions available to the maximum extent consistent with sound practice and competing concerns.” [Federation of American Scientists, 2/2/2009; Senate Judiciary Committee, 2/2/2009] Weeks later, the Justice Department will release nine controversial OLC memos from the Bush administration (see March 2, 2009).

Entity Tags: Eric Holder, Bush administration (43), Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The US Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility refuses to refer two former Bush administration officials to authorities for criminal or civil charges regarding their authorizations of the torture of suspected terrorists (see Before April 22, 2009). John C. Yoo and Jay S. Bybee, two senior officials in the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel, provided the legal groundwork that allowed American interrogators to use sleep deprivation, waterboarding, and other torture methods against terror suspects (see Late September 2001, January 9, 2002, and August 1, 2002). The report finds that Yoo and Bybee, along with former OLC head Steven Bradbury, exhibited “poor judgment” in their actions. The OPR refuses to make the report’s conclusions public. It is known that senior Justice Department official David Margolis made the decision not to refer Yoo and Bybee for legal sanctions. [Office of Professional Responsibility, US Department of Justice, 7/29/2009 pdf file; Washington Post, 1/31/2010]

Entity Tags: John C. Yoo, Bush administration (43), David Margolis, Jay S. Bybee, Office of Professional Responsibility, US Department of Justice, Steven Bradbury, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ)

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

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