President George W. Bush Thursday ordered White House lawyers to use claims of executive privilege to prevent senior White House aides from cooperating with the Justice Department’s criminal investigation into destruction of videotapes that showed CIA interrogators torturing terrorism suspects.
White House sources tell Capitol Hill Blue that the claims of executive privilege are just “the first step” in a coordinated campaign to stonewall the investigation and prevent administration aides from giving depositions or submitting to interviews with Justice Department investigators.
Attorney General Michael Mukasey announced the investigation this week, appointing veteran prosecutor John Durham of Connecticut to handle the probe. Democratic leaders and Constitutional law experts, however, say the Justice Department, which ultimately answers to the White House, cannot be expected to fully investigate Bush’s involvement and say the probe needs a special prosecutor.
Constitutional law expert Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University professor, says Bush can block any effective legislation.
Appearing on MSNBC, Turley said:
Picking some guy in Connecticut or Cincinnati or Delaware or any other state doesn’t make any difference. His boss is Michael Mukasey. And Michael Mukasey’s boss is the president of the United States. And if torture occurred, he was the guy who ordered it. So this doesn’t help a conflict of interest at all.
Others argue that Durham is a good choice. Reports The Associated Press:
Durham will serve as acting U.S. attorney on the case, a designation the Justice Department frequently makes when top prosecutors take themselves off a case. He will not serve as a special prosecutor like Patrick Fitzgerald, who acted autonomously while investigating the 2003 leak of a CIA operative’s identity.
“The Justice Department went out and got somebody with complete independence and integrity,” said former Connecticut U.S. Attorney Stanley Twardy, who worked with Durham. “No politics whatsoever. It’s going to be completely by the book and he’s going to let the chips fall where they may.”
Durham gained national prominence following the 1989 murder of Mafia underboss William Grasso, which led to one of the biggest mob takedowns in U.S history. He then turned to Connecticut street gangs, winning dozens of convictions and putting some gang leaders in jail for life. Former Attorney General Janet Reno hand-picked Durham to lead the investigation into the FBI’s use of mob informants in Boston.
Durham, a Republican, has shown no tolerance for corruption in either party. He supervised the corruption investigation that sent former Republican Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland and several members of his administration to prison.
“He’ll suck the political air right out of the investigation and just go after the facts,” said Mike Clark, a retired FBI agent who investigated Rowland. “He’s going to do it his way and just keep digging.”
The CIA already had agreed to open its files to congressional investigators, who have begun reviewing documents at the agency’s Virginia headquarters. The House Intelligence Committee has ordered Jose Rodriguez, the former CIA official who directed the tapes be destroyed, to appear at a hearing Jan. 16.
The White House, however, is not promising such a level of cooperation. In past criminal investigation (like the probe into the outing of covert CIA Valerie Plame), Bush promised full cooperation by White House aides. This time around, the Administration is silent.
“Publicly, the White House is not saying a damn thing,” says one Justice Department lawyer. “That’s a bad sign.”