Obama's Justice nominees signal end of Bush terror tactics

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 5, 2009 

Indiana University law professor Dawn Johnsen will take charge of the Office of Legal Counsel under President Barack Obama. (Courtesy of Indiana University/MCT)

INDIANA UNIVERSITY / MCT

WASHINGTON — 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.

Walter Dellinger, a Duke University law professor, said that Johnsen's appointment "sends a very strong message that the administration intends to make sure that its power is exercised in conformity with constitutional rights and respect for civil liberties."

Obama also said that he'd nominate:

_ David Ogden, a top Justice Department official during the Clinton administration, as deputy attorney general, the No. 2 figure under attorney general nominee Eric Holder.

_ Elena Kagan, the dean of the Harvard University Law School and a former Clinton White House aide, as solicitor general. She'd be the first woman to hold the post.

_ Tom Perrelli, counsel to Clinton Attorney General Janet Reno from 1997 to 1999, as the associate attorney general who oversees civil matters.

Obama said that he hoped that the four appointees would restore "integrity, depth of experience and tenacity" to the lead federal law-enforcement agency, which has been battered by scandal.

"This is a superb set of appointments," said Dellinger, who headed the Office of Legal Counsel from 1993-96 and then served as U.S. solicitor general. "These four are highly accomplished in the profession and bring a stature to the job that will allow them to say no to the president when no is the correct answer."

While Obama fleshed out his Justice Department team, Democratic officials said that he'll name former Democratic congressman and Clinton White House chief of staff Leon Panetta to head the CIA, tapping a figure who once oversaw the secret budgets of spy agencies but lacks hands-on intelligence experience.

The Justice Department has yet to fully regain its image of independence since allegations of political influence mired the agency in scandal in 2007, leading to the resignations of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and about a dozen other department and White House officials.

Congress still is seeking records related to allegations that nine U.S. attorneys were fired for political reasons, senior department employees skewed career hiring to favor Republican applicants and politics influenced the enforcement of voting-rights laws.

"It's clear that the Department of Justice has been savaged by the Bush administration and has been profoundly disgraced," Tribe said. "It's going to be a major task to rehabilitate it."

The task will be complicated, Tribe said, partly because Republican lawyers have been embedded in career jobs, and "a number of them will have to be reassigned to responsibilities and places where their ideological single-mindedness" doesn't interfere with their duties.

Obama's picks contrast with Bush's selection of Gonzales, who lacked Justice Department experience. Since stepping down as attorney general in September 2007, Gonzales has yet to find a job.

Without referencing Gonzales, Dellinger said that Obama's four picks are "great lawyers who have terrific jobs they can go back to and the strength to be a strong, independent voice for the law. They are not people who will be easily pushed around."

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California-Irvine law school, praised them as "highly professional, experienced lawyers who are not partisans."

Ogden, a partner at the law firm of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, served as chief of the Justice Department's Civil Division from 1999 to 2001. He's led the Obama transition team's Justice Department review.

Kagan, the Solicitor General designate, lacks Supreme Court experience, but served as a Clinton White House adviser from 1995 to 1999 and has headed the Harvard Law School since 2003. Tribe hailed her as "the greatest dean I'd ever seen or imagined," and Chemerinsky said she "is held in incredibly high esteem across the spectrum.''

Perrelli, managing partner of the Washington office of the Chicago-based law firm of Jenner & Block, served for four years in the Clinton Justice Department, finishing as a deputy assistant attorney general in the Civil Division.

Johnsen, whom Dellinger hired to the Office of Legal Counsel, served in the unit for five years. During the presidential primaries, she joined Hillary Clinton's campaign in Indiana.

(Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article.)

ON THE WEB

Testimony of Dawn Johnsen before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution

"Outrage at the Latest OLC Torture Memo," by Johnsen

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