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Rahm Emanuel: We're Not Re-Litigating the Past

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Cross Posted at Legal Schnauzer
A profile of Attorney General Eric Holder in the current issue of The New Yorker contains a quote from Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel that should be troubling to all citizens who care about justice issues. It should be particularly troubling for those who have followed political prosecutions, such as those involving Don Siegelman in Alabama and Paul Minor in Mississippi.

The article, by Jane Mayer, focuses largely on Holder's policies regarding terrorism, especially his plan to try terror suspects in criminal courts rather than in military tribunals.

Mayer portrays Emanuel as a purely political animal who cares little about fundamental issues of right and wrong. And her article lends support to a long-time Obama mentor who recently complained that Emanuel is poorly serving the president and should exit the administration as soon as possible.

Is Emanuel the architect of Obama's nonsensical "look forward, not backward" policy on justice issues--an approach that seems to be hurting Democrats at the ballot box? Mayer's article indicates that the answer to that question is yes.

Emaunuel, Mayer writes, adamantly opposed a number of Holder's decisions, including one that widened the scope of a special counsel who had begun investigating the C.I.A.'s interrogation program. Bush had appointed the special counsel, John Durham, to assess whether the C.I.A. had obstructed justice when it destroyed videotapes documenting waterboarding sessions. Holder authorized Durham to determine whether the agency's abuse of detainees had itself violated laws.

Ever mindful of possible political fallout, Emanuel feared that Holder's decision would alienate the intelligence community. But Holder was profoundly upset after reading classified documents that described CIA prisoner abuse. Writes Mayer:

Emanuel couldn't complain directly to Holder without violating strictures against political interference in prosecutorial decisions. But he conveyed his unhappiness to Holder indirectly, two sources said. Emanuel demanded, "Didn't he get the memo that we're not re-litigating the past?"

We're not re-litigating the past? Is that what the Obama campaign meant by "change we can believe in"? And what does it say about the administration's approach to other justice matters, such as the Bush-era political prosecutions of Don Siegelman, Paul Minor, and others?

Why is Emanuel's statement alarming? Let us count the ways:

* Emanuel is not a lawyer, so perhaps we should cut him some slack. But the president's chief of staff should have some familiarity with how the justice system works. And Emanuel's statement reveals a frightening ignorance about the law. To conduct a criminal investigation of any matter--whether it's CIA interrogation tactics or use of the Justice Department for political purposes--is hardly "re-litigating the past." By Emanuel's definition, no crime ever would be investigated.

* Investigations into Bush-era abuses have not been conducted, so nothing from the past can be "re-litigated." They haven't been litigated the first time, so they certainly can't be "re-litigated." In other words, Emanuel's statement does not make a lick of sense.

* The article portrays Emanuel as desperate to curry favor with certain Republicans, particularly U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) But Emanuel's statement indicates that he cares little about the concerns of progressives, the very people who put Obama in office. And he apparently cares even less about basic matters of right and wrong. If Don Siegelman, Paul Minor, and others rot in federal prison for "crimes" they did not commit . . . well that doesn't seem to bother Rahm Emanuel at all.

The Mayer article concludes by raising a critical question about the Obama administration: Is it tough enough to deal with matters of justice? The question obviously rankles Holder, but no one is doing more than Rahm Emanuel to bring the question to the forefront. Writes Mayer:

Late last month, at home, in Northwest Washington, Holder addressed those who have suggested that he and Obama are too weak to take on terrorism. "This macho bravado--that's the kind of thing that leads you into wars that should not be fought, that history is not kind to," he said. "The quest for justice, despite what your contemporaries might think, that's toughness. The ability to subject yourself to the kind of criticism I'm getting now, for something I think is right? That's tough." He paused, and added, "This is something that can get a rise out of me, the notion that somehow Eric Holder and Barack Obama, this Administration, is not tough. We have the welfare of the American people in our minds all the time. We'll fight our enemies, and we'll do that which is necessary, and we won't turn our backs on the values and traditions that have made this country great. That is what is tough."

Holder is right on target with this statement. But Rahm Emanuel, the president's chief of staff, takes just the opposite approach: He says we should turn our backs on "the values and traditions that have made this country great"--because its the politically expedient thing to do.

What's the big message that we take from Jane Mayer's excellent article? The Obama administration will not come close to reaching its potential unless it shows resolve and strength on justice issues. And that isn't likely to happen as long as Rahm Emanuel stays in place.

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I live in Birmingham, Alabama, and work in higher education. I became interested in justice-related issues after experiencing gross judicial corruption in Alabama state courts. This corruption has a strong political component. The corrupt judges are (more...)
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