I’m back on the road this week, this time reporting on a visit to Cairo. Stalled at immigration control at Cairo International Airport, a run in with grumpy border guards has me thinking about accountability, rule of law… and the Bush legacy.
As I walk into the chaotic Cairo terminal, I’m jumpy about my visa status. Visas used to be issued on entry to Egypt; recently they’ve clamped down on business travel, allegedly in response to Israeli pressure regarding aid workers crossing into Gaza from Egypt. Despite finally getting a legit visa issued from the DC embassy, I’m nervous.
At the immigration booth, the border guard is visibly bored as he stamps my passport a couple times. He then hands my papers behind him, into another booth, and gestures vaguely at me. I try to follow my passport around, but unlike the first window, this booth is surrounded on all sides by opaque black plexiglass, giving it the look of a ticket window… except you can’t see anything inside. There is however, a 5cm hole cut in it, down low — just enough to sort of peek at the workings of government. I can see passports being handed around, scanners, some conversation. Am I in the country yet or not?
Minutes tick by, and I am stunned by how literally this illustrates the lack of transparency in Egypt. I get glimpses of movement in there, but I have no real idea what’s going on. I can’t contribute anything, and I can’t hold anyone to account if my papers go awry. So I check out of the process and wait.
As I stand there, my head is still trying to wrap itself around a Wall Street Journal story containing this gem of political theory from our (now) former Attorney General Michael Mukasey. Mukasey was upset that his replacement has said that waterboarding, an interrogation practice designed to convince a prisoner they are about to be drowned, is torture.
“Torture is a crime,” Mr. Mukasey said in an interview Friday, adding that he worried “about the effect on…the work of fine intelligence lawyers who are called on to make judgments on questions like that, often under tremendous time pressure — not to mention the pressure of an attack that killed 3000 people [and caused worry that] maybe there was going to be another one.”
Nevermind that the decision to authorize waterboarding is being defended years later (so much for “tremendous time pressure”). The core argument here is: Osama made me do it. We were scared, don’t blame us.
Not exactly Churchill is he? Mukasey goes on, and this is really the key point:
“It’s one thing to write opinion on matter of abstruse law. It’s quite something else to write [opinions] on whether something is or isn’t a crime,” he said. He added that in the future, government lawyers and agents “have to be concerned that you may someday — having given your best, most honest, most impartial advice — have it be said of you that you sanctioned a crime.”
Michael. That creepy “someday” feeling you’re talking about? That “concerned” feeling? That what accountability feels like. That’s power constrained by a constitution, and laws, and rules. That’s knowing deep down that if you break the law — an important law like, say, the Geneva Conventions — bad things might happen to you. That’s how it’s supposed to work.
I can think of no better display of how atrophied the sense of personal responsibility is in the now-defunct Bush White House. This isn’t lost on the new administration. First, the obvious but painful admission from the new attorney general that American intelligence officers have tortured prisoners.
Then, something more subtle, but important. From President Obama’s inaugural address: “what is required of us now is a new era of responsibility.”
Earlier in the same short speech: “We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers… drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”
Memo to the Justice Department: “tremendous time pressure” no longer a viable excuse.
Back on the other side of the world, I’m pondering all sorts of ways to give up my ideals to expedite my passport processing — after editing The Corruption Notebooks for four years, I have a pretty good portfolio of options. But at last, I am waved through without a word of explanation and there are my documents, free and clear. Egypt awaits.
Well said. The role of a prosecutor is to decide whether to prosecute. That is a mixed question of law and fact. Civil lawyers have to make those calls all the time: clients want to know if they are committing a crime if they take certain acts. Often people could live with civil exposure, but they won’t take a criminal risk. Making those calls is what we get paid to do.
Mukasey is misleading us.