Hooray for Holder: New attorney general abandons Bush policies

A tidal wave of economic gloom and doom from Washington, D.C., has dominated the public’s attention in recent weeks—and few would disagree that it’s downright depressing. But news this week of actions taken by new U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder brings hope to our country.

In the first weeks of the Obama administration, the actions of the Justice Department raised more than a few eyebrows. Instead of the change we were promised, the agency defended some of the Bush administration’s policies on wiretapping and shipping prisoners to secret jails in foreign lands for harsh interrogation.

But this week the attorney general showed where the new administration stands on these thorny issues by releasing a series of legal opinions drafted nearly eight years ago by Bush’s Office of Legal Counsel. The content of the memos is enlightening about the manner in which President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney looked at both the powers of the executive branch and the applicability of the U.S. Constitution and existing law to the exercise of that power.

According to an Associated Press article the legal memos, many of which were issued only weeks after the 9/11 attacks, “reiterated in page after page of documents that the president had broad authority to set aside constitutional rights,” including Fourth Amendment protections against unwarranted search and seizure, “as long as the president was combating terrorism.”

Bush’s Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo wrote in an October 23, 2001, memo that “First Amendment speech and press rights may also be subordinated to the overriding need to wage war successfully. The current campaign against terrorism may require even broader exercises of federal power domestically.” Only days later, Yoo added to the opinion by suggesting changes in existing laws on wiretapping because, as the AP article reports, “the government’s interest in keeping the nation safe following the terrorist attacks might justify warrantless searches.”

These opinions, as expressed through the series of memos, provided the support the Bush administration sought for a whole host of despicable practices. This includes sending suspects to Guantanamo prison, where they were submitted to interrogation techniques that are normally regarded as torture, reading U.S. citizens’ e-mails without warrants, and even detaining American citizens in military prisons without legal representation and without bringing charges against them.

That shameful era has ended, according to Holder, who put it bluntly in his own words: “Too often over the past decade, the fight against terrorism has been viewed as a zero-sum battle with our civil liberties. Not only is that school of thought misguided, I fear that in actuality it does more harm than good.”

Adding to the new era of transparency, the Justice Department also revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had destroyed 92 videotapes of prisoner interrogations. Amrit Singh, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said, “The large number of videotapes destroyed confirms that the agency engaged in a systematic attempt to hide evidence of its illegal interrogations and to evade the court’s order.”  Because the CIA destroyed the tapes rather than turn them over to the Justice Department, Singh contends that the agency should be held in contempt of court for non-compliance. The CIA, however, apparently still getting used to the idea that it’s a whole new ballgame now, told reporters: “If anyone thinks it’s agency policy to impede the enforcement of American law, they simply don’t know the facts.”

Granted, it’s tough to know the facts when the agency in question destroys the evidence that could prove or disprove the facts. It’s also tough to ferret out the facts when the Bush administration claimed such tapes never even existed. But now, with Bush and his arrogant and corrupt cronies out of the White House, those facts are finally coming to light. As Holder testified during his Senate confirmation hearings, “No one is above the law”—and that would appear to include the government intelligence agencies implicated in the illegal actions.

This comes on top of yet another recent announcement by Holder that the Justice Department would also quit raiding clinics and patients in states that had adopted medical marijuana laws. For thousands of Montanans, this is great news. Even though Montana’s voters approved legalizing medical marijuana by the highest percentage of any state—62 percent—legal actions by federal authorities have hampered the ability of Montanans to legally comply with the laws adopted by our own citizens.

Tom Daubert heads the medical marijuana group Montana Patients and Families United and has a bill to expand Montana’s medical marijuana law to include such maladies as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Daubert applauded the Holder decision and hopes the new attorney general will consider moving further on the issue. 

“He should cut DEA funding entirely for anything to do with medical marijuana in states and restrict the use of federal drug task force funding in relation to medical marijuana,” says Daubert. “He should also install science-based policies in the Veteran’s Administration to allow VA doctors to make medical marijuana recommendations, eliminate the policy that allows loss of all veteran benefits to those who test positive for marijuana, and clarify that federal funding of clinics, hospitals and related facilities does not require bans on physician recommendations for medical marijuana.”  Finally, Daubert suggests Holder “follow the recommendations from the Drug Enforcement Agency’s own administrative law judges to remove marijuana from being listed as a Schedule 1 substance.”

Whether Daubert’s recommendations become policy remains to be seen, but Holder and the Obama administration are undeniably moving in the right direction on the issue. Moreover, Holder is shining a light on transparency in government, truthfulness from public agencies and the rejection of the torture policies of the Bush era. And for that, we should all be thankful.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com
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