Somewhere, Hammurabi Is Crying

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The torture debate is becoming tortuous.

Justice Department lawyers are dragging their feet on whether to sanction their former colleagues who approved over-the-line interrogation methods. Members of Congress, some of whom were briefed long ago about techniques such as waterboarding but didn't object, aren't moving much faster. And President Obama has broken his pledge to release photos of the interrogations.

So Kevin Zeese took matters into his own hands. "We decided to take action today because the federal government seems unable and unwilling to act," he told the CNN and Associated Press cameras outside the Judiciary Square Metro station yesterday. "The people must act to face up to this issue and restore morality and the rule of law to the United States."

Nearby were Zeese's weapons: a dozen five-inch-thick legal binders, one for each of the "Bush-Cheney torture lawyers," packed in FedEx Kinko's cardboard boxes, loaded on a luggage cart and tied down with bungee cords. With cameras rolling, he took the carts into the D.C. Office of Bar Counsel and made his formal request that the lawyers be disbarred.

"Hello, we're here to file some bar complaints," Zeese announced to the receptionist. A cheerful clerk in the office accepted the boxes of binders as if receiving a shipment from Office Depot. "Have a good day!" she called after Zeese as he departed.

Zeese, a Ralph Nader disciple, was rather less cheerful as he explained his hopes for John Yoo, Jay Bybee and Stephen Bradbury -- the men who wrote the infamous memos -- and supervisors and colleagues such as John Ashcroft, Alberto Gonzales, Michael Mukasey, Michael Chertoff, Douglas Feith, David Addington and Michael Haynes. "I'd like to see them disbarred and shamed," he said. "If these guys aren't disbarred, it means that somebody who facilitates war crimes is meeting the legal ethics standards. That's disturbing if true."

"Disturbing" is putting it mildly. But, then again, Zeese's proposed punishment (disbarment for violating "rules of professional conduct") is fairly tame, too. If they are really guilty of war crimes, as Zeese charges, shouldn't the punishment be a bit more severe -- like, say, subjecting them to the same questioning techniques they approved?

That would have an elegant, eye-for-an-eye quality while avoiding years of messy legal proceedings. And, after all, the Bush administration lawyers said these techniques are perfectly legal and do not cause long-term harm.

So, forced nudity for Ashcroft, the former attorney general who once ordered the covering of the bare breasts of the Lady Justice statue? Sleep deprivation for Chertoff, the former Justice official who, as Homeland Security secretary always looked so tired while giving Hurricane Katrina briefings? Waterboarding for Addington, Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, who haughtily brushed off lawmakers?

Zeese admitted that the idea had some cathartic appeal. The "confinement with insects" technique -- sticking the lawyers in a confined space with some pesky pests -- "would really bug them," he allowed. But Zeese found a flaw in the proposal: "Torture is illegal," he said. "For the same reason you can't do it to al-Qaeda, you can't do it to Justice Department lawyers."

Too bad. That leaves Zeese to rely on a labyrinth of due process -- and, likely, more of the frustrations of recent weeks and months. Zeese, representing the groups Velvet Revolution and Voters for Peace, listed the frustrations as he spoke in the Judiciary Square plaza yesterday.

The Justice Department Office of Professional Responsibility's investigation into Yoo's and Bybee's actions, he said, has suffered an "inexcusable delay" of nearly five years.

"Eric Holder has now testified that he approved renditions . . . during the Clinton administration," Zeese lamented of President Obama's attorney general.

Congress "seems unable to take action because of fear of its own complicity being exposed," he complained.

Obama "has now decided to hide evidence of war crimes by refusing to release photographic and video evidence, despite a court order to do so," Zeese argued.

The new top general in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, is "responsible for commanding . . . Special Forces involved in torture."

It's not looking good for those who say they want to impose the rule of law on the "torture lawyers." Zeese still hopes for an independent counsel, but for now he's relying on Wallace E. "Gene" Shipp Jr., bar counsel for the District of Columbia. Shipp will determine whether the Bush lawyers violated professional ethics.

"I think we're setting a pretty low standard," Zeese said of his proposed disbarment-for-war-crimes punishment. "We're talking here about some of the most serious crimes you can commit, war crimes that violate all levels of law, international, domestic and constitutional."

All the more reason to bring out the waterboard and the bugs.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company