Conservative ‘Rebuke’ of Cheney Plays Itself Out

Created: March 09, 2010 00:00 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

A still from Keep America Safe's "al-Qaeda 7" ad (YouTube) and Cully Stimson (heritage.org) A still from Keep America Safe's "Al Qaeda Seven" ad (YouTube) and Cully Stimson (heritage.org)

One of the things Charles “Cully” Stimson remembers about the interview that cost him his job is just how run down he was when it happened. His January 11, 2007 sit-down with Federal News Radio, said Stimson, was one of 40 interviews he’d given that week. That’s one of the reasons the deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs stumbled so badly when talking about a Freedom of Information Act request that would have revealed the names of attorneys who were defending prisoners detained at Gitmo.

[GOP1] “When corporate CEOs see that those firms are representing the very terrorists who hit their bottom line back in 2001,” said Stimson to Fed News, “those CEOs are going to make those law firms choose between representing terrorists or representing reputable firms, and I think that is going to have major play in the next few weeks.”

The comment, coming only days after Democrats took charge of both houses of Congress, blew up in Stimson’s face. Within three weeks, he had resigned. He apologized to the lawyers that he “allegedly was slamming.” He would never have done such a thing. Cut to last week, when he saw an ad by Keep America Safe, a national security think tank founded by Liz Cheney and Bill Kristol, that demanded the names of attorneys who’d defended Gitmo detainees — what it called “the Al Qaeda Seven” — and gone on to work for the Department of Justice.

“I think the blowback against me,” Stimson told TWI, “especially the ad hominem attacks, was unfair. And I think that these ad hominem attacks — calling the Department of Justice, where I proudly served, the Department of Jihad — are disgusting.”

Over the weekend, Stimson joined 19 other conservative lawyers, many of them fellow veterans of George W. Bush’s administration, signed a letter condemning Keep America Safe for “a shameful series of attacks on attorneys in the Department of Justice.” The letter, written by Ben Wittes of the Brookings Institution, compared what the lawyers did to what John Adams did in defending the soldiers accused in the Boston Massacre. One reason Stimson signed the letter, he told TWI, was that his “controversial” 2007 episode would bring more attention to a cause he supported.

One week after Keep America Safe launched the campaign, the strategy of Stimson and co-signers like Ken Starr and David Rivkin appeared to have paid off with plenty of articles about their criticism and a partial apology from CNN for the way it packaged its segment on the subject. But the pushback is unlikely to become what critics hoped it might — a humbling moment for Cheney, Kristol, and neoconservatives who aim to move the administration’s national security policy closer to that of the Bush administration. Sources close to Keep America Safe acknowledged that its “Al Qaeda Seven” ad had played poorly in Washington, but were confident that the “conservatives versus Cheney” story had played itself out without dealing a substantial blow to national security conservatives.

On Monday, the effort by conservative attorneys to criticize Keep America Safe had apparently peaked. In op-eds and in conversations with TWI, other Bush administration veterans largely defended Cheney, even if they agreed that the TV ad had gone too far. Curt Levey, a Bush DOJ veteran who now runs the Committee for Justice — one of several conservative legal groups that vets Obama nominees for court slots — told TWI that the criticism could have been headed off had Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) received, as he had requested, the names of the DOJ lawyers who’d done work for terrorism suspects. (The names, as Fox News would find, could be located with some digging on the internet.)

“Attorney General [Eric] Holder brought this controversy on himself by resisting Grassley’s reasonable request,” said Curt Levey. “Despite the usual rhetorical excesses of political ads, Keep America Safe has not argued that the Al Qaeda Seven’s past work disqualifies them from working at DOJ. So the Human Rights Watch letter is aimed, at least in part, at a straw man argument. I would add that it’s curious that many of the Democrats who defended Holder’s refusal to disclose are the very same folks who gleefully investigated every detail of the Bush Justice Department’s hiring practices in the hope of proving that the department deliberately tried to increase the paltry representation of conservatives among the ranks of DOJ’s career attorneys.”

A similar argument came from Marc Thiessen, a former speechwriter for Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, in the column he now writes for The Washington Post. “Where was the moral outrage when fine lawyers like John Yoo, Jay Bybee, David Addington, Jim Haynes, Steve Bradbury and others came under vicious personal attack?” wrote Thiessen. “Their critics did not demand simple transparency; they demanded heads. They called these individuals ‘war criminals’ and sought to have them fired, disbarred, impeached and even jailed. Where were the defenders of the ‘al-Qaeda seven” when a Spanish judge tried to indict the ‘Bush six‘? Philippe Sands, author of the ‘Torture Team,’ crowed: ‘This is the end of these people’s professional reputations!’ I don’t recall anyone accusing him of ‘shameful’ personal attacks.”

Hans Von Spakovsky, a former counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in the Bush administration — and like Stimson, now a Heritage Foundation scholar — aligned himself with Cheney. “I don’t think it is unfair or somehow improper to criticize those lawyers who have volunteered to help the enemies of the United States who are dedicated to killing as many innocent Americans as possible and destroying our country,” Von Spakovsky told TWI. “I certainly don’t think those same lawyers should be in the Justice Department directing policy and making decisions on prosecutions of those same terrorists. That would be like hiring Mob lawyers in the Organized Crime and Narcotics Task Force or hiring someone who volunteered to defend the Klu Klux Klan in the Civil Rights Division. Those lawyers who all come from big firms have a wide choice of who to help on a pro bono basis and their choice of terrorists says a lot about them –- I would not hire them to represent my company, either, if I were still a corporate in-house counsel, because I would not want my company’s money subsidizing that kind of legal work.”

One week after Keep America Safe launched its campaign, there was more evidence of rallying behind Keep America Safe than of more conservatives turning on Cheney. Allies of the group laughed off the idea that Democrats could stoke more controversy by re-enacting the legislative drubbing that Republicans gave MoveOn.org for its 2007 ad asking whether Gen. David Petraeus would mislead in his testimony about Iraq and become “General Betray-Us.” Democrats, they argued, knew that they didn’t have a long-term winning argument to buttress the murmurs of conservative anger. In his conversation with TWI, Stimson poured cold water on any Democrats who hoped he’d become a steady critic of Keep America Safe.

“I like Bill Kristol,” he said. “I like Debra Burlingame. If I met Liz Cheney, I’m sure I’d like her, too.”