Her beliefs were very compatible with candidate Obama's words, but incompatible with President Obama's actions
(updated below – Update II)
After waiting 14 months for a confirmation vote that never came, Dawn Johnsen withdrew today as President Obama’s nominee to head the Office of Legal Counsel. As I documented at length when the nomination was first announced in January, 2009, Johnsen was an absolutely superb pick to head an office that plays as vital a role as any in determining the President’s record on civil liberties and adherence to the rule of law. With 59 and then 60 Democratic votes in the Senate all year long (which included the support of GOP Sen. Richard Lugar, though the opposition of Dem. Sen. Ben Nelson and shifting positions from Arlen Specter), it’s difficult to understand why the White House — if it really wanted to — could not have had Johnsen confirmed (or why she at least wasn’t included in the spate of recently announced recess appointments).
I don’t know the real story behind what happened here — I had an email exchange with Johnsen this afternoon but she was only willing to provide me her official, pro forma, wholly uninformative statement — but here’s what I do know: virtually everything that Dawn Johnsen said about executive power, secrecy, the rule of law and accountability for past crimes made her an excellent fit for what Candidate Obama said he would do, but an awful fit for what President Obama has done. To see how true that is, one can see the post I wrote last January detailing and praising her past writings, but all one really has to do is to read the last paragraph of her March, 2008 Slate article — entitled “Restoring Our Nation’s Honor” — in which she outlines what the next President must do in the wake of Bush lawlessness:
The question how we restore our nation’s honor takes on new urgency and promise as we approach the end of this administration. We must resist Bush administration efforts to hide evidence of its wrongdoing through demands for retroactive immunity, assertions of state privilege, and implausible claims that openness will empower terrorists. . . .
Here is a partial answer to my own question of how should we behave, directed especially to the next president and members of his or her administration but also to all of use who will be relieved by the change: We must avoid any temptation simply to move on. We must instead be honest with ourselves and the world as we condemn our nation’s past transgressions and reject Bush’s corruption of our American ideals. Our constitutional democracy cannot survive with a government shrouded in secrecy, nor can our nation’s honor be restored without full disclosure.
What Johnsen insists must not be done reads like a manual of what Barack Obama ended up doing and continues to do — from supporting retroactive immunity to terminate FISA litigations to endless assertions of “state secrecy” in order to block courts from adjudicating Bush crimes to suppressing torture photos on the ground that ”opennees will empower terrorists” to the overarching Obama dictate that we “simply move on.” Could she have described any more perfectly what Obama would end up doing when she wrote, in March, 2008, what the next President ”must not do”?
I find it virtually impossible to imagine Dawn Johnsen opining that the President has the legal authority to order American citizens assassinated with no due process or to detain people indefinitely with no charges. I find it hard to believe that the Dawn Johnsen who wrote in 2008 that “we must regain our ability to feel outrage whenever our government acts lawlessly and devises bogus constitutional arguments for outlandishly expansive presidential power” would stand by quietly and watch the Obama administration adopt the core Bush/Cheney approach to civil liberties and Terrorism. I find it impossible to envision her sanctioning the ongoing refusal of the DOJ to withdraw the January, 2006 Bush/Cheney White Paper that justified illegal surveillance with obscenely broad theories of executive power. I don’t know why her nomination was left to die, but I do know that her beliefs are quite antithetical to what this administration is doing.
UPDATE: ABC News‘ Jake Tapper quotes an anonymous “Senate Democratic leadership source” regarding a Senate vote to confirm Johnsen: ”Bottom line is that it was going to be close. If they wanted to, the White House could have pushed for a vote. But they didn’t want to ’cause they didn’t have the stomach for the debate.” Take that anonymous quote for what it’s worth, but what is clear is that they were very close to having the votes last year if they did not in fact have them (when the Senate had 60 Democrats plus Lugar’s support) and, in any event, could have included her among last month’s recess appointments. Had there been real desire to secure her confirmation, it seems likely it would have happened; at the very least, a far greater effort would have been made.
UPDATE II: Dave Weigel, now of The Washington Post, becomes the latest to observe the core similarity between the Obama and Bush/Cheney approaches to civil liberties, Terrorism and national security. If you were Barack Obama and were pursuing the policies that he ended up pursuing, would you want Dawn Johnsen in charge of the office which determines the scope of your legal authority as President?