Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Indefensible

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, January 23, 2007

"On the cold moonlit evening of March 5, 1770," writes David McCullough in his magisterial "John Adams," "the streets of Boston were covered by nearly a foot of snow." A crowd set upon a lone British sentry at Boston's Province House, taunting him. Quickly, reinforcements arrived, and so did a larger crowd. Soon the crowd hurled snowballs, chunks of ice, oyster shells and stones. The soldiers, now nine, opened fire, killing five Bostonians -- "bloody butchery," Samuel Adams called it. Only one lawyer would defend the British soldiers. He was a different Adams -- John Adams, a good man on the path to being great.

I resurrect this tale about Adams because it is sorely needed. Just this month, an official in the Bush administration, a deputy assistant secretary of defense named Charles D. Stimson, suggested that lawyers who defend terrorism suspects being held at Guantanamo not only should not do so but that their firms ought to be blackballed as a result.

"I think, quite honestly, when corporate CEOs see that those firms are representing the very terrorists who hit their bottom line back in 2001, those CEOs are going to make those law firms choose between representing terrorists or representing reputable firms," he said in a radio interview. You may want to read that again.

It's hard to know where to begin. Shall it be with the notion that the Sept. 11 terrorists did not so much murder about 3,000 people as hit the "bottom line" of American corporations? This is a stunningly original take on that awful day, an auditor's reading of history that Stimson, in the spare time he deserves to have in abundance, might want to apply to the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the burning of Atlanta. I doubt that any CEO looks at Sept. 11 as a bad day at the office.

More to the point, what sort of lawyer -- and Stimson is one -- not only thinks that a terrorism suspect does not deserve counsel but that the counsel ought to be punished as a result? It's hard to fathom a lawyer saying such a thing -- even hard to fathom it from a mere citizen.

It would be just a waste of my time, I suppose, to point out that the Guantanamo suspects are just suspects, convicted so far of nothing. In fact, some of them have been released and others, arrested and held elsewhere, turned out to not be the mass murderers and master criminals the government, in a fit of hype, originally accused them of being. Anyone who thinks all prosecutors speak nothing but the truth need only familiarize themselves with the case of the lacrosse players at Duke. There's a sad lesson in American jurisprudence for you.

Naturally enough, Stimson's repudiation of everything John Adams stood for produced some protest, condemnation and outrage. Following the well-established Washington rule, Stimson apologized, doing so in a letter to The Post. He said his remarks did not reflect his "core beliefs." He did not blame his utterance on drugs, booze, Twinkies or a deep depression; he merely said that his words had left the wrong "impression." With that, he has returned to the obscurity from whence he came, his job presumably secure.

I, for one, do not accept Stimson's apology. I think it is insincerely offered and beside the point. What matters most is that he retains his job, which means he retains the confidence of his superiors in the government. How anyone can have confidence in such a man is beyond me. There are only two explanations, one inexcusable, the other chilling. The first is that his bosses don't care. The second is that they agree with him.

I would guess that Stimson strongly felt it was No. 2 -- agreement. From the get-go, the Bush administration has taken the position that anyone it detained on terrorism charges was guilty. Throw away the key. No need for lawyers. No need for judges. No need for anything except, of course, the word of the authorities. In recent months, a more assertive Congress and the courts have unaccountably challenged this view, and the Bush administration has beaten a tactical retreat on unchecked eavesdropping and the legality of trying alleged terrorists before military commissions. Still, we all know where its heart is on these matters. Justice is what the administration says it is.

By now, any other administration would have fired Stimson, apology or not. His words show that he is unfit for government service, not to mention membership in the bar. Fortunately for him, if and when someone does drop the ax, some misguided lawyer, infused with the spirit of John Adams, will defend him. I hope Stimson will forgive him.

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