At Barack Obama's Justice Department, a Return to the Rule of Law.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

PRESIDENT Obama has made fine choices in tapping Dawn E. Johnsen as chief of the Office of Legal Counsel and Martin S. Lederman and David Barron as her deputies. His selection of David S. Kris to head the department's National Security Division is another excellent move. The appointments signal a return to the best traditions of the Justice Department -- a focus on the department's primary mission of protecting the country while maintaining an allegiance to the rule of law.

The Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) has long been understood to be the legal conscience of the government, providing advice to the executive branch on what it can and cannot do on a broad range of issues. Although housed at the Justice Department, the office provides binding opinions to all corners of the executive branch. During the past eight years, the office gained notoriety for authoring memos that sought to legally justify the use of extreme interrogation techniques against terrorism suspects. Its opinions often were so tightly held that even top Justice officials and intelligence overseers on Capitol Hill were unaware of their existence or contents.

Ms. Johnsen, Mr. Lederman and Mr. Barron, OLC lawyers during the Clinton administration and law professors since, have been leading and thoughtful critics of Bush administration policies on detention and national security. Ms. Johnsen has urged more openness from the OLC and has advocated, whenever possible, making more of the office's findings publicly available. All three appointees are likely to reject the extreme secrecy and legal distortions of the office under President Bush and, when opinions cannot be made public, to at least share them with key lawmakers.

Mr. Kris, a former deputy in the National Security Division and recently deputy general counsel for Time Warner, brings sterling technical and legal credentials to the job of leading the relatively new section. He is widely acknowledged to be an expert on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the law that requires court authorization for intelligence wiretaps. He has been both a strong advocate of giving the government the tools it needs to protect the country and a staunch defender of accomplishing such a mission within the four corners of the law. His strong yet balanced approach should serve the administration and the country well.

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