No Sense of Decency
“It never occurred to me on the day that Defense Department lawyer Rebecca Snyder and Lt. Cmdr. William Kuebler of the Navy appeared in my law firm’s offices to ask for our assistance in carrying out their duties as military defense lawyers that the young lawyer who worked with me on that matter would be publicly attacked for having done so. And yet this week that lawyer and eight other Justice Department attorneys have been attacked in a video released by a group called Keep America Safe (whose board members include William Kristol and Elizabeth Cheney)…”—Former U.S. Solicitor General Walter Dellinger
Washington Post, March 5, 2010
LIZ CHENEY SEIZED THE NATION’S ATTENTION and triggered its gag reflex with an attack on a small group of Justice Department lawyers who had earlier represented Guantánamo detainees.
Cheney’s campaign began with her “lock’em up and try’em in Gitmo” speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, which was followed by a walk-on by her father, the former vice president. Then Keep America Safe, Liz Cheney’s nonprofit advocacy group, released an ad that employed a formula familiar to anyone who has ever seen a political smear: dark tones, ominous music, and a dark message delivered in a low voice.
The 48-second video clip labels the DOJ attorneys as the “Al Qaeda Seven” and the United States Department of Justice as the “Department of Jihad.” As the image of Osama bin Laden appears behind the darkened images of seven individuals, a voice-over asks: “Whose values do they represent?”
Actually there is an “Al Qaeda Nine.” But the names of the two most prominent DOJ lawyers who represented Guantánamo detainees—Principal Deputy Solicitor General Neal Katyal and National Security Division attorney Jennifer Daskal—are widely known. In a tradition with roots in Wheeling, West Virginia—where in 1950 Senator Joseph McCarthy held up a list he claimed included the names of communists working at the State Department—the Keep America Safe ad demands that Attorney General Eric Holder name the names of seven other lawyers who had defended “terrorist detainees.”
The message is unequivocal. Because these lawyers represented individuals detained in international terrorist sweeps, the lawyers themselves are on the side of the terrorists. To be more specific, the lawyers and the attorney general concealing their identities are on the side of Osama bin Laden. The whole package is stunningly repugnant.
Liz Cheney is smart. She’s ambitious. And she appears to be angling for a House or Senate seat. Her organization’s attack on the lawyers is consistent with her professional history, her canine loyalty to her father, and her character.
When she was named the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs (PDAS) in 2005, Liz Cheney became her father’s eyes, ears, and muscle at the State Department, shutting down discussion and dissent, intimidating critics of neocon foreign policy projects.
“Until she came in, the NEA [Near Eastern Affairs] bureau always had a variety of people and a variety of perspectives,” a State Department source told me at the time. “Under [Secretary of State Colin] Powell, anyone could voice their opinion, make dissenting arguments, even if it wasn’t the policy of the administration. That changed when Liz came to be PDAS.”
Assistant Secretary of State David Welch was Cheney’s boss, the source said. “But she’s the vice president’s daughter. There was kind of a parallel universe, where David had his projects and she had hers.”
On at least two occasions Cheney shut U.S. ambassadors out of meetings with heads of state of Middle Eastern countries, ac -cording to Lawrence Wilkerson, who worked for Bush Secretary of State Colin Powell. Although State Department protocol requires ambassadors to sit in on all meetings with heads of state, Cheney made it clear that protocol didn’t apply to her. She told one of the ambassadors who disagreed with her to call Washington if he had a problem.
On another occasion, she cut off discussion during a secure teleconference with State Department offices in the Middle East when one of the participants inquired about a contingency plan should Hamas win parliamentary elections in Palestine.
“She said Hamas wasn’t a viable political organization,” said another State Department source. “That was the end of it. No one was allowed to discuss it.” Hamas went on to win 76 of 132 seats in the election, and ultimately took complete control of Gaza.
WHO’S KEEPING AMERICA SAFE?—Republican multi-millionaire donor Mel Sembler is the money behind Keep America Safe, although this isn’t Sembler’s first attempt to create a national political advocacy organization. He was one of the founding funders of Freedom’s Watch, conceived when Dick Cheney spoke at a Republican Jewish Coalition meeting in Florida in 2005. The nonprofit advocacy group set out to rebrand the Iraq war and support Congressional candidates who would support Bush and Cheney. Freedom’s Watch collapsed under the weight of its big personalities in 2008.
There is a peculiar backstory involving the Florida mall developer who underwrites Keep America Safe and provides a platform for Liz Cheney, neocon author William Kristol, and Debra Burlingame (cofounder of 9/11 Families for a Safe and Strong America).
In 1976, Mel and Betty Sembler founded Straight, Inc., a tough-love drug-rehab program embraced by former First Lady Nancy Reagan. Straight, Inc. was part of a national explosion of drug-treatment centers that aggressively recruited and aggressively treated adolescents. With 12 clinics in nine states, Straight became one of the nation’s largest drug rehab businesses.
The tough love got a little too tough. In a 2006 article in the St. Petersburg Times, a former patient who landed in a Sembler rehab facility at age 17 described the program as “part Lord of the Flies, part Abu Graib prison.”
Others were working the torture leitmotif before him.
Former American University professor Arnold Trebach, who wrote about Straight, Inc. in his 1987 book The Great Drug War, told San Francisco writer John Gorenfeld that he believed that at Straight “at least half of the kids were abused.”
In 1992 a psychology professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia compared the mind-control techniques used in the Sembler rehab facilities to techniques the North Koreans used on American POWs during the Korean War.
In 2001 journalist Maria Szalavitz (author of Help At Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids) published an article in The American Prospect, describing physical and mental abuse at Straight facilities.
In 2004, the Broward-Palm Beach New Times described sleep, food, and medication deprivation used by Straight counselors as mechanisms to control patients’ behavior.
Allegations of abuse were borne out in the courts. In 1983 a former Straight patient won a $220,000 jury award based on claims that he had endured unlawful imprisonment and regular beatings in one of Straight’s Florida facilities. Another Florida jury awarded a woman $721,000 in 1990, for abuse that included being slammed into a wall by a non-accredited Ph.D. who provided her treatment. There were other jury awards and settlements.
The lawsuits and investigations forced Straight, Inc. to close its doors in Florida in 1993. (Other facilities in other states were also closing.)
News stories in the St. Petersburg Times, followed by an editorial that ran under the headline “A persistent foul odor,” depicted Sembler as a typical high-dollar political donor who demanded a bang for his buck, and described the closing of Sembler’s drug rehab operation as overdue.
The Times editorial writers also observed that a $126,000 contribution Sembler made to the Republican National Committee in 1988 paid for his appointment (by President George H.W. Bush) as ambassador to Australia.
It is hardly news when someone buys an ambassadorship. But the Times also ran a policy-and-politics account of a Florida Health and Human Resources regulator who was prepared to deny Straight a license in 1989 but was told that no matter what the facts were, the license would be renewed. Another state employee was told she would be fired on the spot if she challenged Straight’s license.
According to a report released by a Florida state auditor, the agency had acquiesced to pressure from “several unnamed senators and Mel Sembler, the organization’s founder and at the time a nominee to be a U.S. ambassador.”
DEEP POCKETS—The larger story is the extent of the Semblers’ involvement in national Republican Party politics and money.
Sembler was the chairman of a group called the “Regents,” who raised money from major donors for Bush the elder, with whom Sembler had a very close relationship. (The first President Bush called the Straight program one of his “1,000 points of light.”)
In 1996, Sembler promoted the short-lived presidential candidacy of Dick Cheney. From 1997 to 2000, Sembler was the Republican National Committee finance chair.
In April of 2000, he raised $21.3 million at one fundraising dinner for presidential candidate George W. Bush, and was appointed by Bush to serve as ambassador to Italy. In Rome, Sembler presided over the U.S. government’s $113 million purchase and renovation of a palace, officially designated the Mel Sembler Embassy Annex.
Sembler was a major donor to Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who must not have been reading the newspapers or the court dockets in 2000 when he proclaimed a “Betty Sembler Day,” recognizing Mrs. Sembler’s lifetime campaign against drug abuse.
Sembler chaired the Scooter Libby Defense Fund, a committee of 29 Republican notables who raised more than $5 million for Cheney’s former chief of staff before he was convicted in federal court in 2007.
And Sembler was a major financial backer of Florida Governor Charlie Crist, according toOpenSecrets.org. He recently cut Crist loose and joined a majority of Florida Republicans moving right to support Marco Rubio, Crist’s opponent in the primary race for a U.S. Senate seat.
The constant in what has been reported about Mel Sembler is certitude. He told a reporter that ACLU lawsuits filed against his drug-rehab operation “just shows that we must have been doing things right.”
Sembler mocked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff vetting his appointment as ambassador to Italy, listing in the Languages Spoken box of his disclosure form: “English (fluent).”
He dismissed questions about the appearance of quid pro quo when Florida Representative Bill Young (whom he had financially supported) sponsored the $113 million earmark for the Rome embassy annex.
Sembler’s account of Straight, Inc.’s success in saving adolescents from drug addiction was included in his State Department bio while he was posted in Rome.
Mel Sembler is a man of unlimited energy and financial resources. His next project is reported to be encouraging Liz Cheney to run for the U.S. Senate in Wyoming.
LIZ OFF THE LEASH—Today Liz Cheney zealously defends her father’s legacy while creating a counter-narrative that might help keep him out of the dock were war crimes tribunals ever convened. As improbable as that might seem, the Cheneys never expected to see Scooter Libby indicted, never mind convicted in an investigation that might have resulted in the indictment of the vice president himself. And while Bush administration lawyers John Yoo and Jay Bybee were neither reprimanded nor disbarred, their DOJ Office of Legal Counsel memos justifying the torture that became policy under Bush and Cheney have been discredited by the Justice Department.
Liz Cheney is smart enough to know that covering her father’s back (and transgressions) from the office of a three-person nonprofit organization is not as easy as it was when she was a deputy secretary of state and could muscle employees and rewrite policy. Perhaps that awareness explains her attempt to criminalize the lawyers cleaning up after her father’s war crimes. (The Bush administration, by legal definition, did commit war crimes.)
Her attack is a crude attempt to warn those in power who have openly disagreed with the extreme policies put in place by her father that they are in for a hard ride. While it might serve the purposes of intimidation, there are more flaws in Cheney’s argument than we can fully discuss here.
Lawyers defend all sorts of clients without justifying their clients’ crimes, alleged or actual. With no defense, there can be no legal process and no prosecution.
As a law school professor, Neal Katyal, the most prominent of the “Al Qaeda Nine,” did defend Osama Bin Laden’s driver, Salim Hamdan. But five members of the John Roberts Supreme Court agreed with Katyal that the military tribunals set up by the Bush administration were in violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Conventions.
As Obama’s deputy solicitor general, Katyal was in federal court three months ago (Washington Spectator, February 1, 2010) on the other side of the issue, arguing that detainees in U.S. custody in Bagram Prison in Afghanistan should never be allowed access to United States courts.
Most of the lawyers who have represented Guantánamo detainees are Judge Advocate General attorneys serving in the armed forces. Cheney has yet to demand that Defense Secretary Robert Gates turn over those names.
There also is the question of the culpability of the men swept up in the panic that followed the 9/11 attack. The Bush administration released two-thirds of the Guantánamo detainees because officials could find no grounds on which to try them and no justification for which to detain them. Many of the Muslim men taken into U.S. custody had done nothing wrong.
Most notably, a group of 22 ethnic Turkic Uyghurs from China were arrested and locked up in Guantánamo, even though as early as 2003 the Pentagon concluded that they had done nothing wrong.
I have reported extensively on Murat Kurnaz, born in Germany of Turkish immigrant parents. After being kidnapped and tortured, he spent five years detained at Guantánamo. By the second of those five years, German and U.S. intelligence agents concluded that Kurnaz had broken no law and was never involved with terrorists.
Kurnaz was 24 years old when his attorney, Seton Hall Law School Professor Baher Azmy, informed him that he and German lawyer Bernhard Docke had secured his release.
H.L. Mencken said “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” For the most part I agree. But I have a higher regard for the moral intelligence of the American people, most of whom would identify with the law school professor who devoted three years to the defense of an innocent man before they would embrace the arguments advanced by Liz Cheney.