Mukasey stonewalls Senate Democrats on water-boarding, and practically everything else.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 30 2008 7:11 PM

Thank You. Now Go to Hell.

Mukasey stonewalls Senate Democrats on water-boarding, and practically everything else.

Michael Mukasey. Click image to expand.
Attorney General Michael Mukasey 

Virtually every Democrat on the Senate judiciary committee opens his or her questions to Attorney General Michael Mukasey at today's oversight hearing with a thank you. They thank him for appointing an outside prosecutor to investigate the destruction of the CIA torture tapes; they thank him for re-establishing appropriate boundaries between the White House and the Justice Department. They thank him for putting an end to disparate treatment of gay employees at DoJ, and for, er, reassigning the dread U.S. attorney for Minnesota, and for his work to depoliticize the Justice Department. All of these thanks join together to form a sort of mimed Hallelujah Chorus in which all can agree that any day Alberto Gonzales isn't the attorney general is a good day in America.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

Where Gonzales tended toward weaselly whininess, Mukasey is inclined toward curt directness. In response to an elaborate three-part question from Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, toward the very end of a very long day, Mukasey responds, "It is, we are, and I do." Where Gonzales invariably blamed some faceless "senior leadership of the department,"  Mukasey is willing to shoulder sole responsibility for his decisions.

Advertisement

The problem is that Mukasey is only willing to make and defend his decisions without explaining them. Still, he is very convincing in asserting that even though his decision is secret and its rationale is secret, and all future applications are secret, he is nevertheless confident that it's the right decision.

As you'll recall, last October, nominee Mukasey promised the Senate that while he couldn't yet offer an opinion on the legality of the alternative interrogation technique called water-boarding, he'd be able to do so once he was "read into the program." As you may also recall, that nonanswer came close to scuttling his nomination. Last night, Gen. Mukasey let the Senate know in a sort of constitutional Dear John letter that he wouldn't opine on water-boarding today either, both because we stopped doing it and because it's "not an easy question."

In other words, having set about diligently to scrutinize the legality of the interrogation program, its legal justifications, and its applications, the nation's top lawyer has come up with this lawyerly answer: It depends.

Over the course of a long, maddening day, it's quickly manifest that Mukasey's legal opinions have a 30-second shelf life. He won't opine on what's happened in the past and he won't opine on anything that might happen in the future. When Sen. Arlen Specter—concerned about seven years of vast new claims of executive authority—asks Mukasey whether, in his view, the president "can break any law he pleases because he's the president—including, say, statutes banning torture," as well as FISA and the National Security Act, Mukasey replies, "I can't contemplate any situation in which this president would assert Article II authority to do something that the law forbids."

"Well, he did just that when he violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act," Specter shoots back. Mukasey's response? "Both of those issues have been brought within statutes."

Specter is flabbergasted: "But he acted in violation of statutes, didn't he?"

"I don't know," Mukasey replies. But does it really matter? What's past is past.

Enter Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., as the ghost of Christmas Future. Even if Mukasey won't opine on past water-boarding, might he give some future guidance for future torturers? "In your letter," says Kennedy, "you wouldn't even commit to refuse to bring water-boarding back, should the CIA want to do so. You wouldn't take water-boarding off the table! … Under what facts and circumstances would water-boarding be lawful?"

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

Yes, Black Families Tend to Spank More. That Doesn’t Mean It’s Good for Black Kids.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

Politics

The GOP’s Focus on Fake Problems

Why candidates like Scott Walker are building campaigns on drug tests for the poor and voter ID laws.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 6:23 PM Bryan Cranston Reenacts Baseball’s Best Moments to Promote the Upcoming Postseason
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 16 2014 4:09 PM It’s All Connected What links creativity, conspiracy theories, and delusions? A phenomenon called apophenia.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.