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Mary McGrory

In Search of Makeovers

By Mary McGrory
Sunday, June 2, 2002; Page B07

I know it is risky -- and no end presumptuous -- to speak for the dead. But I am tempted beyond my strength by a coincidence. The first awarding of the Elliot Richardson Prize for excellence in public service, in honor of the peerless public servant from Boston, occurred at a moment of explosive revelations about current government lawyers. Richardson's fourth and last Cabinet post was attorney general. He quit rather than fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox -- and saved the nation.

I feel sure my old friend Elliot Richardson would salute Coleen Rowley, the general counsel of the Minnesota FBI office who blew the whistle on the constipated thinking of her superiors. Like Richardson, she risked a job she loved to tell the truth.

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The Minnesota office was on to Zacarias Moussaoui, who is now in a Virginia jail awaiting trial as the "20th hijacker" in the September plot. The G-men were thwarted in their attempt to search his computer, Rowley wrote: Everyone phrased the request so obtusely that it invited rejection. This reluctance has struck Washington dumb: The FBI has slapped a phone tap on just about anybody whose views rankled.

Rowley couldn't persuade the CIA's terror specialists to give Moussaoui the once-over either. All she got out of that was a reprimand for "going out of channels," which is a mortal sin in the bureaucrats' Ten Commandments. I think Elliot, a keen student of power games, would have noted the irony in the present state of play between the two culprit agencies. FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, who took office just a week before the catastrophe, is being made to stand in the corner, while CIA Director George Tenet, who has nothing to be proud of in the uncovering of the murderous plot, is teacher's pet.

Mueller spent two hours explaining how the G-men were getting a top-to-toe makeover; Tenet has grandly announced he is shipping over some of his analysts to the fumblers at the bureau -- leaving us all to hope they'll have more luck with someone else's paper than they had with their own. Mueller will spend the foreseeable future in the hot seat on Capitol Hill, while Tenet takes wing for Israel on a special mission for the president, who likes his guy-to-guy style.

Attorney General John Ashcroft has other lawyers working for him whose faces we never see. It is just as well. They should be ashamed of what they are doing. To Elliot Richardson, the law was a calling. The law is just a living to the people who do Ashcroft's bidding in the disgraceful matter of the post-9/11 detainees, those unfortunates caught in a trap set by the department and held in jail until Justice can scrape up a reason for keeping them there. When you think of the young lawyers who surged into town on being summoned by John Kennedy and who hoped to make the world a better place, and now you see people using the law to bully Third Worlders whose ties to 9/11 can't be proved, you wonder if Elliot Richardson's invincible high-mindedness about working for Uncle Sam was a character flaw.

Read Amy Goldstein's meticulously reported story in The Post about the most notorious detainee case we know of -- 34-year-old Jean-Tony Oulai, who is now going into his ninth month of detention. No government lawyers will explain why they are still playing games with Oulai -- they say piously that their pawn has committed a minor crime. Goldstein first wrote this riveting story on Jan. 26, making Oulai the first of more than 1,200 detainees to go public. For his effrontery he was put in solitary.

Oulai is a Catholic from Ivory Coast, but the FBI never seems to recover from its initial wrong assumption that he is an Arab Muslim. Its computers once put him in Iceland. His trouble began on Sept. 14, when he was arrested in a Florida airport with a stun gun and aviation literature in his suitcase. No proof was ever found of a connection to 9/11, but whenever he was taken into federal court a judge was persuaded that the national security was at stake, and he was locked up again.

The sudden moves from prison to prison, almost like pre-dawn raids, were apparently meant to disorient him and break his spirit while the department searched for a reason to keep him behind bars. He had a lawyer who urged him to plead guilty to the rarely prosecuted offense of lying to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which his captors finally dug up. Oulai dismissed the lawyer. Over the telephone, he told Goldstein, "I have nothing to plead guilty to."

By now, it is obvious that Oulai's crime was to make government lawyers look bad. If they let him go, they admit they were wrong -- and they just can't do that. Richardson's old lieutenant, Jonathan Moore, says his man never lost his capacity for outrage. More outrage is needed for the fact that Elliot Richardson's last post, which he took to a historic high, will soon be known as the Department of Injustice.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company