David S. Addington, Vice President Cheney's formidable and reclusive chief of staff, is scheduled to appear before the House judiciary committee Thursday for a hearing on how the Bush administration developed its interrogation policies. Signs are that he actually intends to show up.
It's essential that members of the committee not blow the best chance the public has yet had to understand how the United States came to adopt torture as an acceptable interrogation technique and, in so doing, found itself among the world's pariah nations. A compelling and well-supported (if partly circumstantial) narrative casts Addington as the dominant figure in the interagency push to step up the pressure on terror suspects. This is not surprising, as Addington is thought to have been at the red-hot center of pretty much every one of President Bush's most extreme assertions of unfettered executive power. The 51-year-old lawyer is Cheney's most able and devoted henchman, his sharpest knife, his lead loyalist among the legion salted throughout the executive branch. Indeed, he is widely thought to have ghost-written memos and public statements ascribed to better-known figures such as Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo, and William Haynes.
It's not exactly a fluke that Addington got his current chief-of-staff job—he initially served Cheney solely as legal counsel—when his predecessor, Scooter Libby, was indicted on obstruction of justice and perjury charges. (For more on Addington, see Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, Chitra Ragavan in U.S. News and World Report, Jeffrey Rosen in the New York Times Magazine, Barton Gellman and Jo Becker in the Washington Post, and my Sept. 5 column for washingtonpost.com.) Addington has never testified on the Hill before. He never talks to reporters, at least not for attribution. It's a mystery that he agreed to honor the judiciary committee's subpoena and show up on Thursday at all, especially after his own office initially asserted that the vice president and his entire staff are completely immune from any congressional oversight. But one explanation for Addington's readiness to appear is his confidence that the 40-member judiciary committee (specifically, its 23 Democrats) won't lay a glove on him. He has ample reason to think so.
If the entire committee shows up, each member will have a total of about nine minutes of question time, and Addington is not the day's only witness, as torture-memo author John Yoo will be present as well. How hard will it be for someone as sharp as Addington to filibuster a bunch of members of Congress for nine minutes each? Especially if they squander time grandstanding, pursuing conflicting goals, and chasing down tangents? What Addington knows is important, and getting it on the public record is so critical that the judiciary committee members should take extraordinary pre-emptive action. Rather than risk firing random, glancing shots at Addington, they should concentrate their fire. First, interested members and their staffs should get together ahead of time to lay out a detailed game plan. Then, Democratic members of the committee need to do something I don't believe they have done before: They need to collectively cede their time to one or two members, ideally the former prosecutors, to subject Addington to a sustained and well-planned examination. I nominate Artur Davis—a former assistant U.S. attorney from Alabama—and William Delahunt—a former district attorney in Massachusetts. But others might be up to the task as well.
There's not much point in asking Yoo anything—why waste time with Charlie McCarthy when Edgar Bergen is sitting right next to him? Yoo can be brought back later anyway.
The judiciary committee's sole aim on Thursday should be to keep Addington at the table until he provides answers to some essential questions. Here's a draft script to that end:
Q. When was the decision made that traditional interrogation methods weren't sufficient for the challenge of information-gathering? Who made that decision?
Q. What precipitated the decision?
Q. Was there any opposition?
Q. What happened to the opposition?
Q. What made you so sure you were right?
Q. Are we correct in assuming that the operating principle behind these decisions was that Sept. 11 changed everything? How would you say it changed everything?
Q. Do you consider this a permanent change?
Q. If not, what in your mind needs to happen before we return to normalcy?
Q. How much guidance did you personally give Yoo? How much of the memos attributed to Yoo, Jay Bybee, and Gonzales did you write yourself?
Q. Were you satisfied with the quality of Yoo's legal arguments? Are you now, in retrospect?