A Postive Sign from Justice

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009 at 6:49 am

It’s hard to divine the Justice Department’s intentions on almost anything these days, given that Attorney General Eric Holder has barely been in office two weeks and doesn’t even have all of his senior staff yet. But if I were trying to read the tea leaves, I’d say we got a good sign yesterday.

As I wrote last week, in a particularly important Freedom of Information Act case, the Justice Department asked for a three-month extension to decide whether it would turn over three particularly critical Office of Legal Counsel memos that the American Civil Liberties Union has been pushing for.  (The memos could help determine whether Bush administration officials broke the law.) Never mind that the FOIA case has been pending for more than five years, and with only three memos involved, it’s unlikely that it would really take the department’s lawyers that long to decide whether they fall within the handful of exceptions allowed by FOIA to prevent the release of government documents.  So Judge Alvin  Hellerstein of the U.S. District Court in New York City, who was obviously annoyed, scheduled a hearing Wednesday to set a date certain for the government to respond.

Whether to avoid a public scolding, or just realizing that it will be hard to defend needing 90 days to review three memos, the Justice Department yesterday agreed to respond within 30 days — a much more reasonable alternative that the ACLU readily agreed to.

So now, the Department of Justice will have to decide by March 16 whether, in keeping with Obama’s promises and in this new spirit of cooperation, it will turn over those OLC memos, which reportedly authorized some of the Bush administration’s most brutal interrogation methods.  Then again, the Obama Justice Department is still staffed largely by Bush-era career staff holdovers.  And a cynic might read today’s move as their conclusion that 30 days was all they needed to reinforce their fight to keep hiding the evidence.

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