Waking From a Bad Dream

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, January 6, 2009; 1:20 PM

It has been like a national nightmare: We are attacked by terrorists and our leaders respond not with courage and a call to our higher natures, but by spreading fear -- and turning us into a regime of torturers. Rather than celebrate our Constitution and its enduring values, they use the levers of government to subvert it.

Now the nightmare appears to be almost over.

By choosing two vocal opponents of torture for two key positions -- Dawn Johnsen to head the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel and Leon Panetta to head the Central Intelligence Agency -- President-elect Barack Obama has indicated that he intends to make the cleanest possible break from Bush administration precedents, end torture and return to traditional interpretations of the Constitution.

Greg Gordon writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "In filling four senior Justice Department positions Monday, President-elect Barack Obama signaled that he intends to roll back Bush administration counterterrorism policies authorizing harsh interrogation techniques, warrantless spying and indefinite detentions of terrorism suspects.

"The most startling shift was Obama's pick of Indiana University law professor Dawn Johnsen to take charge of the Office of Legal Counsel, the unit that's churned out the legal opinions that provided a foundation for expanding President George W. Bush's national security powers.

"Johnsen, who spent five years in the Office of Legal Counsel during the Clinton administration and served as its acting chief, has publicly assailed 'Bush's corruption of our American ideals.' Upon the release last spring of a secret Office of Legal Counsel memo that backed tactics approaching torture for interrogations of terrorism suspects, she excoriated the unit's lawyers for encouraging 'horrific acts' and for advising Bush 'that in fighting the war on terror, he is not bound by the laws Congress has enacted.'

"'One of the refreshing things about Dawn Johnsen's appointment is that she's almost a 180-degree shift from John Yoo and David Addington and (Vice President) Dick Cheney,' said Harvard University law professor Laurence Tribe, referring to the main legal architects of the administration's approval of harsh interrogation tactics.

Pamela Hess writes for the Associated Press: "Obama is sending an unequivocal message that controversial administration policies approving harsh interrogations, waterboarding and extraordinary renditions -- the secret transfer of prisoners to other governments with a history of torture -- and warrantless wiretapping are over, said several officials."

Carrie Johnson and Robert Barnes write in The Washington Post: "Johnsen, who led the office in an interim capacity during the Clinton administration, has been outspoken about what she called overly expansive views of executive power that the Justice Department has adopted in recent years. In congressional testimony last spring, Johnsen said legal interpretations were 'tainted by the administration's desired policy ends and overriding objective of expanding presidential power.'"

Johnson and Barnes also note in a blog post: "In an interview before the election, Johnsen told the Washington Post that a review of all of the Bush era legal opinions would be a major undertaking for the new administration."

Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times: "Many of Mr. Obama's picks in other cabinet departments have taken on a decidedly centrist bent. But at the Justice Department, where controversial Bush administration policies like interrogation tactics and eavesdropping will come under review, the nomination of Eric H. Holder Jr. as attorney general last month and Monday's selections of four top aides suggested a strong effort to stake out a new direction."

The Panetta appointment is also enormously significant. As last month's bipartisan Senate report so vividly explained, the abuse of detainees by military personnel could be linked back to memos signed by Bush and his top aides. But only the CIA received explicit White House permission to engage in practices such as waterboarding.

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company