Commentary Magazine


Marc Thiessen on Keep America Safe

Marc Thiessen makes a valiant attempt in his Washington Post column to defend the campaign mounted by the group Keep America Safe, led by Liz Cheney, against the hyperbolically dubbed “al-Qaeda Seven” — seven Justice Department lawyers who, prior to entering government service, defended detainees accused of working for al-Qaeda. He writes:

Would most Americans want to know if the Justice Department had hired a bunch of mob lawyers and put them in charge of mob cases? Or a group of drug cartel lawyers and put them in charge of drug cases? Would they want their elected representatives to find out who these lawyers were, which mob bosses and drug lords they had worked for, and what roles they were now playing at the Justice Department? Of course they would — and rightly so.

But the situation is hardly analogous. The pejorative phrases “mob lawyers” and “drug cartel lawyers” refer to attorneys whose practices are consist either solely or mainly of working for rich gangsters. In many cases these lawyers became more or less a part of the criminal enterprise themselves, often taking illegal actions such as carrying a mob boss’s orders to his underlings from jail.

There are in fact “terrorist lawyers” in this sense. For example Lynne Stewart, who was sentenced to 28 months in prison for passing messages from the “blind sheikh,” Omar Abdel Rahman, to his fellow terrorists. Or the French lawyer Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, who is engaged to marry Carlos the Jackal, and has compared the French police to the Gestapo.

If Stewart or Coutant-Peyre had been hired by the Department of Justice, I could see legitimate grounds for outrage. But the lawyers singled out by Keep America Safe are hardly in the same category. All they did was challenge the rules governing terrorist detainees or provide some representation to terrorist defendants. There is no suggestion that they favor terrorism or support al-Qaeda; all they did was what lawyers are supposed to do. As a group of Republican attorneys note:

Whether one believes in trial by military commission or in federal court, detainees will have access to counsel. … Good defense counsel is … key to ensuring that military commissions, federal juries, and federal judges have access to the best arguments and most rigorous factual presentations before making crucial decisions that affect both national security and paramount liberty interests.

Thiessen has a better point when he bemoans the double standard at work here. Many of those now outraged by the attacks on the Justice Department lawyers kept silent or applauded when John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and other honorable Bush administration lawyers were accused of being “war criminals” and threatened with prosecution for advocating a vigorous prosecution of the war against al-Qaeda. Perhaps this controversy will prove salutary if it will lead the Left to call off their attack dogs.

But there is an overriding cost that should be kept in mind: By focusing so much on the lower-level lawyers, Keep America Safe is missing the real problem. That starts at the top with Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama, who seem willing to give terrorist defendants more rights than they received under the Bush administration — and more rights than most Americans think they deserve. I would suggest keeping the focus on Obama and Holder, not on underlings who are not the ultimate decision-makers here.