Commentary Magazine


The Pursuit of Officials Now Out of Office

David Frum makes an important point today about the innovative approach on policy differences unveiled this week in Washington by the Obama Administration and the Senate Intelligence Committee: It appears that winning an election and taking control of Congress will no longer be sufficient for the political mob. Rather, those now out of office will have to spend their time as private citizens being pursued by committees and possibly prosecutors for the views they expressed and actions they took when they were serving in the executive branch under different political management. Frum:

Now Obama is musing about extending the political reach of the criminal law. If he does so, he will find he has opened a new front of political warfare that will not soon end.

After the 9/11 attacks, President Bush drew a curtain of oblivion against all the errors and mistakes that had led up to the attacks. There was accusation and counter-accusation in the media, but at the official level there was no recrimination against President Clinton’s decision not to kill bin Laden when he had the chance, no action against those who had failed to stop the 9/11 hijackers from entering the country.

If Obama proceeds to take legal action against those who did what they thought was right to defend the country, all that will change. Prosecutions launched by Obama will not stop when Obama declares “game over.” If overzealousness under Bush becomes a crime under Obama, underzealousness under Obama will become a crime under the next Republican president.

Revenge will be exacted for revenge, the costs of government service will escalate, mobilizing cross-party support will become practically impossible for any important action, and the political life of the American republic will take another step toward the play-for-keeps destructiveness of the last days of the Roman republic.

It’s a nightmare future. Let’s banish the possibility now.

A few years ago, when Scooter Libby was indicted for the crime of — I’m still not sure what, exactly — oh, yes, supposedly leaking information to journalists who did not actually publish anything on the subject at hand and then lying about it to a grand jury when no one could actually make sense of the chronology being offered up by the Savoranola who was pursuing him, it occurred to be that a Rubicon really had been crossed. To wit: You should have your head examined if you go work in a senior job in the executive branch of the United States government.

Since the Reagan years, every administration has had senior officials hauled before special prosecutors, prosecutors, and Congressional committees. It would appear, based on these records, that there is a measurable risk that if you take a job, you will at the very least be pursued by someone who wishes to charge you with a crime or get you to nail someone else who they think has committed a crime. That risk is somewhere between 10 and 20 percent, and rises the closer you get to the president.

Now, think of what this means. Forget being indicted or convicted — obviously, those are horrifying possibilities. Just think about getting called before a Senate investigating committee. Or a grand jury. Every time a question is asked, a lawyer needs to be engaged. Every time a lawyer is involved, a bill is generated.  Maggie Williams, who was Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff when Mrs. Clinton was First Lady, found herself saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees owing to investigations of Whitewater. She is not a wealthy woman. She went to work as a public servant at a very respectable but hardly rich-person’s salary, and found herself poverty-stricken by a political investigation of which she was not even the focus.

Now, it appears, John Yoo and Steven Bradbury and others will find themselves similarly under vicious financial pressure, and why? For offering advice and counsel that was requested of them as part of their ongoing fulfillment of their public responsibilities. It was one thing when their names were being dragged through the mud — now their lives are going to be dragged through the mud.

If this goes forward, and I mean this seriously, anyone reading this blog post who is a friend of or a relative of someone working in high precincts in the Obama administration had better strongly advise their loved one to quit and get the hell out of Washington. Because it won’t end here. Because it is all political, in the end. Because one day, they will be caught in the vise just as surely.

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