The Post identifies Howard Kurtz, who wrote "Ed Meese's Blind Spots" for last Sunday's Outlook section, as one who "covered the Justice Department for The Post until recently." That much is true. But what Kurtz says is not.
The piece contains simple factual errors. Consider, for example, Kurtz's discussion of "non-acquiescence" in the Social Security disability program. Contrary to what he writes, the policy did not begin with the Reagan administration in 1981, but was followed in numerous prior administrations dating back to at least 1962. And non-acquiescence was a policy of the Department of Health and Human Services, not Justice.
Factual errors like these, however, are the least of the problem. Kurtz, a staff writer, has written not news, but opinion. And the point of his piece is to portray the attorney general and the Justice Department in a highly negative way. To do this, Kurtz engages in misrepresentation and gross distortion.
Consider Kurtz's treatment of the department's brief in Thornburgh v. Gingles, the North Carolina redistricting case that involved interpretation of the 1982 extension of the Voting Rights Act. Kurtz inaccurately alleges that in our brief we argued for the rejected "intent" standard, totally ignoring the issue framed by the pleadings (i.e., can there be a discriminatory "result" when blacks win with some regularity?).
Kurtz takes the same course in his discussions of department actions involving the Sentencing Commission and the independent counsel law. Last year, the commission asked the department whether it had the legal authority to promulgate sentencing guidelines concerning the federal death penalty statutes. Describing the issue as a "close and difficult one," Charles J. Cooper, the assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel, responded with a painstakingly researched opinion concluding that the statute establishing the commission granted it authority to create guidelines for all sanctions contained in federal criminal law, including capital punishment. Declining to take issue on the merits, Kurtz simply calls the opinion "tortured" in order to say the department was doing an "end-run" around Congress.
On the independent counsel law, Kurtz discusses the attorney general's decision not to refer a former department official on grounds that the individual did not possess "criminal intent." Kurtz confidently asserts that such a judgment is "by law" left to an independent counsel. The issue is hardly so simple, and a strong case can be made that judgments about "criminal intent" can and should be made by the attorney general. Still, Kurtz offers this decision as an instance of our "deviousness."
On the Iran-contra matter Kurtz approaches burlesque. He writes that "Meese provided a legal opinion to the White House -- oral, of course -- that Reagan did not have to notify Congress about the secret arms sales to Iran." With that winking interjection -- "oral, of course" -- Kurtz conveys the impression that there is something wrong with an oral view -- which there is not. And Kurtz leaves out relevant context. What happened was that Meese, concurring in legal advice given by the Central Intelligence Agency, advised the White House that the president, consistent with presidential authority stated plainly on the face of the relevant law, could withhold notice if exigent circumstances compelled it, but that Congress would have to be notified when the exigency had passed.
Kurtz then goes on to say that "Meese & Co. believe that the president has an inherent constitutional right to do just about anything he wants, notwithstanding any carping from the other two branches of government." Here Kurtz attributes to Meese a view of the executive branch that he demonstrably does not and would never hold.
Kurtz knows this, but it would seem, to borrow some choice Kurtz language, that "results are what count for him." The result of Kurtz's effort here is character assassination. The attorney general is not simply wrong about things but "blind" to the truth -- and worse. There are charges of "dissembling" and "outright lying." "Contempt" -- a favorite Kurtz word -- appears six times in one sentence.
The extent to which Kurtz feels compelled to traduce a man of more than two decades' distinguished public service and the department he leads is well illustrated by one of the more ridiculous stretches he makes. Meese is said to have shown contempt for Congress by appointing William Bradford Reynolds to be his counselor earlier this year. Meese should not have made this move, according to Kurtz, because two years ago a Senate committee had voted against the nomination of Reynolds, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, to be the associate attorney general. For Kurtz, apparently, the committee's rejection of Reynolds means that Reynolds must sit in his civil rights corner and do that and nothing more. This is goofy, and the only people who ever thought this were three Judiciary Committee Democrats (Biden, Kennedy and Metzenbaum) who complained in a story written by -- and only by -- Howard Kurtz.
As someone who daily reads what is written about the Department of Justice, I find most troubling the cast of mind that produced Kurtz's piece. It is a mind that refuses to see that there can be legitimate debate over the ends and means of public policy. It is a mind that sees only one side in a complex issue, that prefers epithet to argument and that casts whoever disagrees as "blind" to the truth. This mind makes demons of decent public servants, but more important it fails to contribute to public comprehension of the serious issues of our time. The writer is director of public affairs for the Justice Department.