Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson: 'Al-Qaeda 7' smear campaign is an assault on American values

Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, March 9, 2010; 1:00 PM

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was online Tuesday, March 9 to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.

Read today's column, 'Al-Qaeda 7' smear campaign is an assault on American values in which Gene writes: "The word "McCarthyism" is overused, but in this case it's mild. Liz Cheney, the former vice president's ambitious daughter, has in her hand a list of Justice Department lawyers whose 'values' she has the gall to question. She ought to spend the time examining her own principles, if she can find them."

Archive of past discussions.


Eugene Robinson: Hello, everyone. I'm back from vacation, refreshed and renewed -- and, apparently, pretty ticked off. Today's column was about the outrageous, McCarthyite campaign that Liz Cheney and others are waging against Justice Department attorneys who, before joining the administration, represented war-on-terror detainees. All they did was what lawyers are supposed to do -- ensure that even unpopular defendants have counsel -- and Cheney's group has the gall to question their "values" and call them the "Al Qaeda 7." In my brief absence, obviously, shameless did not go out of style. Let's begin.


Bangor, Maine: Robinson, why don't you get a life and join the real world. You write as nothing more than an apologist for what is laughingly called the "Obama Administration". Cheney was pointing out what MOST Americans believe. The al Qaeda seven and the rest are terrorists. Do you understand the difference between a terrorist and a burglar? Your inflamed article should be justification for a suit of defamation, but I know Ms. Cheney will not stoop to your level. Pulitzer! What a joke.

Eugene Robinson: As I pointed out in my column, the attacks by Cheney and her group have been denounced by some of the most eminent conservative attorneys and legal scholars in the country, including former officials of the Bush administration -- and even Ken Starr! You may think that our Constitution and our legal system are mere inconveniences. I don't.


Woodbridge, VA: Should lawyers who represent drug cartel leaders be advising the AG about drug enforcement. Should lawyers who advocate for NAMBLA or represent child molesters advise the AG on child protection law? Should mob lawyers represent the AG in matters pertaining to organized crime? I think that Liz Cheney asks a legitemate question and yet rather than ask the rational questions, or why the AG withheld the information, you denigrate them. Is your ideology obscuring the true issues here for you?

Eugene Robinson: Had Cheney et al asked the questions you asked, I would have responded that there's an obvious difference between highly paid, pinky-ring-wearing lawyers on retainer to the mob or one of the drug cartels, and partners or associates at leading law firms who do pro bono work on behalf of detainees. I would have pointed out that there is a difference between a lawyer who "advocates for NAMBLA" and one who represents a defendant accused of child molestation. But what Cheney and her group did was to smear the Justice Department lawyers by questioning their patriotism. That was simply outrageous.


Silver Spring, MD : I agree that terrorist suspects deserve to be represented but if the defense lawyers are working in the Justice Department in a capacity which involves terrorism, that is probably not a very wise decision from at least a perception standpoint. And if the administration wasn't worried about the appointments or the perception of the appointments, why was it so difficult for them to admit that the attorneys are now working for the Department of Justice. We haven't seen much of the so-called transparency that was promised.

Eugene Robinson: Attorneys who had represented terrorism suspects worked in the Bush administration's Justice Department on those issues. By your logic, no lawyer who ever defended a criminal could become a prosecutor. Lawyers are duty bound to fight as hard as possible on behalf of their clients, whether the client be a defendant or the government.


Philadelphia, PA: Dear Mr. Robinson,

First, thank you for your consistently incisive, timely columns.

My question: will Obama recognize that we are not only "at war" abroad but that he faces a rhetorical "civil war" in which effective governing demands judicious but firm exercise of political power, not hewing to a fantasy of bi-partisan reconciliation?

Eugene Robinson: I hope the White House recognizes that its opponents do not intend to "play fair" in the rhetorical wars. And I hope one of his advisers tells him, "Mr. President, with all due respect, the Republicans are just not that into you."


Saco, Maine: I understood Kristol's argument to be not that these lawyers shouldn't be in the DOJ, but that they simply should not be assigned to terrorism cases. Is that fair? And, do you think that Holder was right to stonewall Congress when they asked for the names?

Eugene Robinson: Bill Kristol (who writes a monthly column for The Post, and is co-chair of Liz Cheney's group) does seem to argue that the lawyers shouldn't be working on terrorism issues. That's absurd. Obviously none should work on a specific case in which he or she was previously involved, but why wouldn't Justice want to take advantage of their expertise in this general area? One of them, Neal Katyal, helped WRITE the law by winning the Hamdan v. Rumsfeld case in which the Supreme Court declared the Bush-era military tribunals unconstitutional.

I'm always for full disclosure, and Justice did finally release the names. I have to admit that I would have been tempted to clam up as well -- or at least delay, so as not to throw my subordinates into the lion's den without first making my case that this was absurd, unfair and un-American.


San Diego, CA: Your colleague, Mr. Thiessen, wrote a convincing piece in yesterday's Post, in which he quotes ex-prosecutor McCarthy, where he postulates that "the Sixth Amendment guarantees the accused -- that means somebody who has been indicted or otherwise charged with a crime -- a right to counsel. But that right only exists if you are accused, which means you are someone who the government has brought into the civilian criminal justice system." The habeas lawyers were not doing their constitutional duty to defend unpopular criminal defendants. They were using the federal courts as a tool to undermine our military's ability to keep dangerous enemy combatants off the battlefield in a time of war.

That argument makes sense to me. Yours doesn't. Care to opine on Mr. McCarthy's quote above?

washingtonpost.com: The 'al-Qaeda seven' and selective McCarthyism by Marc Thiessen (Post, March 8)

Eugene Robinson: That's a ridiculous argument. You're saying, in effect, that the detainees had habeas rights (as the courts have consistently ruled) but that there should have been a conspiracy of all attorneys to let the detainees rot in their Guantanamo cells without ever having the question of habeas rights tested. You might think that's consistent with our Constitution and our values. I don't. I suppose you would have said that John Adams never should have defended the British soldiers accused of the Boston Massacre.


San Francisco, California: Would you feel the same way if the Bush Justice Department hired lawyers who helped defend members of the KKK? If not, you're a hypocrite. No need to respond, I know the answer because I occasionally read your columns, plus I've seen your act on MSNBC. Yes, I am one of the six people who has actually watches MSNBC from time to time.

Eugene Robinson: Keep watching. No, it wouldn't bother me if Justice hired a lawyer who represented KKK members. They deserve legal counsel too.


Alexandria: Wow. Some of the questions you're receiving here a mind boggling. Our judicial system doesn't work unless competent attorneys are willing to represent defendants no matter how heinous the crime they're accused of. Attorneys shouldn't have to fear retribution for doing their duty by vigorously representing their clients.

Eugene Robinson: I know. I thought this principle was pretty well established. Don't these folks ever watch Law & Order reruns?


Richmond, VA: "Lawyers are duty bound to fight as hard as possible on behalf of their clients, whether the client be a defendant or the government."

How would you apply this principle to John Yoo or Jay Bybee?

Eugene Robinson: I've always believed that Yoo and Bybee did essentially what they were expected to do -- come up with a legal rationale for the detention and interrogation policies that Bush and Cheney wanted to implement. I think their views are crazy, but I also think the responsibility for the outrages of the Bush-Cheney years lies at a higher pay grade.


Despondent: Do some people just not understand that the Constitution provides that people accused of anything - including terrorism - are entitled to defend themselves? In this country, how one defends oneself is by having an attorney who knows the criminal justice (or the military justice) system be their advocate in court. An attorney in either of these venues does not necessarily agree with the actions, but there is the obligation to make the state prove guilt. Do we really want a country where the state just assumes one is guilty and throws a person in jail based on that? (Talk about unfettered federal power!) If the first two questions to this chat are any indication, then the answer must be yes. Read the history of the period before the French Revolution - that is why so many were in the Bastille, the king just threw them there and forgot about them.

Eugene Robinson: I'd like to say something to make you feel less despondent, but apparently some people don't get this rather simple concept.


Alexandria: I was an Air Force paralegal for 17 years. During that time I worked with defense attorneys who defended some pretty unsavory characters, including child molesters. It's absurd to suggest that the attorneys (and I) somehow support child rapists because we were doing our job.

Eugene Robinson: Exactly. I was chatting with a friend of mine this morning, a retired Washington lawyer in his 80s. I asked if he knew of any attorney who never, not once, represented a client who was less than sterling of character. He couldn't think of one.


re KKK: Hey, San Francisco, do you know who fought for the right of American Nazis to hold a march in Skokie, Illinois? The ACLU. Yeah, that's right. Did your head just explode?

Eugene Robinson: I had forgotten that. Thanks.


Winston-Salem, NC: Please tell me that those whose questions you've posted so far are a tiny minority of all the questions you've gotten today, and that the WP is purposely selecting them. I simply can't believe that very many intelligent people think these DOJ lawyers are really terrorist sympathizers!

washingtonpost.com: Most of the questions (maybe 3/4) in the queue (of which Gene only sees a fraction) are in support of his column. I've sent him a more or less equal mix today of comments in support of and against his column. He chooses which questions to publish, with some guidance from us on which questions have been asked repeatedly -- in today's chat repeat questions were the Thiessen and KKK questions.

Eugene Robinson: And I've probably taken on a disproportionate share of questions that disagree with my point of view, because I guess I'm feeling argumentative today. Frankly, this whole "issue" really blows my mind. It strikes me as a new low.


DC: My question is why do the MSM (CNN, MSNBC, WaPo, etc.) continue to let these people spew lies without calling them what they are - liars? Last night Rachel Maddow's called Republicans who denouce reconcilation liars and I loved her for calling them what they are. You, Rachel and E.J. are but a very, very few who call it like it is. Do you think the MSM is part of the problem for not calling them (anyone who everyone knows is lying) out?

Eugene Robinson: Rachel, E.J. and I are all "opinion journalists" who get to be more plain-spoken. I would like to see more truth-squadding in news stories. If anyone -- from the left, right, center, wherever -- says something that objectively isn't true, or that is a gross distortion of the truth, I don't think we're doing our job if we just put the statement in quotation marks and move on. We need to say that So-and-so stepped up to the microphone today and told the following lies.


On a Happier Note: Long and happy lives to all the gay couples being married in D.C. today!

Eugene Robinson: Yes, it's the first day that gay couples in D.C. have been able to get their marriage licenses and go ahead with the ceremonies. My congratulations to them all.


Charlottesville, VA: As a former defense attorney, the questions you are receiving make me weep for the state of civics education in our country. Have these people never read the Constitution? Do they not understand how our legal system works?

I know the answer. I've had the same kinds of questions thrown at me over the years. Sadly, they don't understand that Perry Mason was fictional. No attorney on either side of any case ever has 100% innocent clients. Your job is not to empathize with your client or even to like them, it is to defend them, and it is an honorable thing to do. Shame on anyone who says otherwise.

Eugene Robinson: Thanks. And it's good to know that Perry Mason wasn't real. I always wondered how Hamilton Burger kept his job as prosecutor when he lost every single case (except one).

You realize, of course, that many people in this chat -- those not of a certain age -- have no idea what we're talking about.


Fairfax, VA: It's finally happened. I finally agree with you on something Mr. Robinson.

Eugene Robinson: I knew I'd get you sooner or later.


washingtonpost.com: Perry Mason (Wikipedia)


Thanks for saying it!: I know people who defended some of the 911 conspirators and they did not do it because they hate America and they are not any less able to defend the rights of the people and values of the constitution. They were assigned a client, they did their best. This does not make them bad people this makes them patriots. Being a a person with values means doing things you don't like doing because it is right, not only doing what makes you happy.

Eugene Robinson: Thank you. And with that, my time is up for today. See you again next week, and let's hope the Constitution is still with us.


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