Video: Starr speaks out against Liz Cheney attack on DOJ

  1. Closed captioning of: Starr speaks out against Liz Cheney attack on DOJ

    >>> census.

    >>> our next guest is a newcomer to this program. in the past his work has been criticized from this desk as sharply as keith has ever criticized anyone. ken starr the former special prosecutor who investigated president clinton has now gone public criticizing the recent attacks by liz cheney and others on justice department lawyers who once represented or did work on behalf of alleged terrorists. the issue sufficiently important that keith weighed in today about judge starr's opinion on this to say, that's how seriously we both take this. that even we agree on it. this, of course, is the web ad produced last week by liz cheney and bill kristol 's group, keep america safe, labeling justice department lawyers the al qaeda 7 and propagating the slur department of jihad because seven then unidentified doj lawyers in addition to two others already known had represented or did work on behalf of terrorist suspects. as we reported last week, a group of conservative lawyers, many of them deeply involved in prosecuting detainees, sharply rebuked the ad. this weekend, that rebuke grew louder. the voice of ken starr and more than a dozen others, including top bush justice and defense lawyers, some of the strongest defenders of bush antiterror policies, joined this chorus. they signed a letter saying that the past several days have seen a shameful series of attacks. we consider these attacks both unjust to the individuals in question and destructive of any attempt to build lasting mechanisms for counterterrorism adjudications. such attacks also undermine the justice system more broadly. whatever systems america develops to handle difficult detention questions will rely at least some of the time on an aggressive defense bar, those who take up that function do a service to the system. joining me now is a co-signatory of that letter, former federal judge ken starr , former solicitor general who currently serves as dean of pepperdine university law school . dean starr the notion that anyone who defended an accused terrorist or as mark tyson today says in "the washington post ", anyone who defended drug dealers or mobsters, should not be allowed to work as prosecutors, let alone be in the national security apparatus, it has a certain obvious appeal to it. what do you teach in law school at pepperdine law school about that issue?

    >> well, lawrence, it's very important for lawyers to be willing to take on unpopular causes to make sure that power is checked, that there are, in fact, arguments being advanced on behalf of those who have been subjected to governmental power. so this is in the finest traditions of our country. i hope school children still learn about the example of john adams because we certainly teach it in law school . john adams taking on the british red coats who of course were charged with the boston massacre and some colonialists were killed, some patriots were killed, and so boston was inflamed by this in terms of popular opinion but john adams considered that one of his finest hours to take on that representation and he successfully defended seven of the british troops charged with these very serious crimes. it wasn't a career-enhancing move for john adams but he did okay in the fullness of time. he didn't apologize for that. he knew that was a duty of our system of law where we protect the liberties of all, and the constitutional rights , of all persons. that's what these lawyers were doing.

    >> bill kristol wrote yesterday about getting people to sign this letter that knowing establishment lawyers i'm sure they'll get a few, the legal fraternity doesn't like criticism of lawyers. your reply to mr. kristol?

    >> well, i love bill kristol . i view him as a friend, but he's wrong on this one, and it is simply not consistent with the great traditions of our country and certainly not with our profession. lawyers have an ethical obligation to be willing to take on unpopular causes. that is an obligation that goes with the profession. it goes with the territory. so one needs to be courageous at times and to be willing to stand up to power and to say, look. i'm going to make the best arguments that i can as a zealous advocate on behalf of this particular client. so lawyers who did that with respect to the detainees were acting in these very fine traditions. they knew it was going to be controversial. but they deserve commendation. they do not deserve criticism at all. the only criticism would be did they take some action as lawyers that it was somehow unethical or improper? no such charge has been made. this was really unwise and an out of bounds characterization and challenge to good, honorable lawyers.

    >> you do have the sentence in this letter that says "such attacks also undermine the justice system more broadly." could you expand on that? what is involved here beyond just terrorism cases?

    >> it's the broader principle of taking on the unpopular cause. we need to encourage young lawyers and law students to do that which all of us who have been in the profession for as i have several decades to know, this is very important. don't just take on the popular causes. it's the people who really do need representation, who may be excluded from the community. the great example that a lot of law students have threread this, the lawyer in "to kill a mockingbird" who is defending an african-american defendant. did that make him popular in that small southern town? absolutely not. but he explained to his children, i've got to do this as a matter of conscience. it wasn't just his conscience. it was the conscience of a profession, a great profession, that john adams embodied, thurgood marshall embodied, and many lawyers day in and day out embody by being willing to stand up to the crowd and saying, no. we stand for the justice system and that everyone has his or her right to representation. and john roberts by the way our chief justice spoke eloquently to this in his own confirmation hearing when questions would be raised about well you represented this client or you represented that client. and part of our traditions that john roberts reminded the senate, reminded the country, is that you do not impute the cause of the client to the lawyer who is called upon to make sure that that client's rights are being protected.

    >> i see the -- in the background shot there, pepperdine university , you're situated at the most beautiful law school campus in america . what provoked you to throw yourself back into the public eye into this kind of controversy? there were enough names on this letter without you signing it. what about this particular attack on the justice department motivated you to step back into a controversial lime light?

    >> well, i don't think it's controversial at all. the principle is clear. the principle is long established. i believe in that principle fervently so a number of us feel very strongly as well about protecting the department of justice . note how it's named. it's not a department of law enforcement. it's a department of justice . and so we want to attract lawyers who have in the past responded as private practitioners or academics to the call to serve in some way that is going to perhaps attract some criticism but then we need in the profession to rally around those who have stepped up in the past, shown courage, been bold and willing to respond to the call of duty and some of these lawyers by the way responded to the call of duty from military lawyers saying, we need help. the former solicitor general under president clinton wrote a very important piece that i think everyone should read who is really thinking maybe there's some question. there is no question here because he talked about the story of an individual in his law firm who is now one of the people who is being attacked by these very unfortunate and ill-conceived ads or messages, that he responded to a weekend call that came in from military lawyers that we need help on this. these are military lawyers assigned to defend.

    >> pepperdine law school, dean ken starr , former independent counsel, and former federal judge , thank you very much for your invaluable perspective on this tonight.

    >> my pleasure, lawrence. thank you.

    >>> coming up, sarah palin says

updated 3/11/2010 10:42:37 AM ET 2010-03-11T15:42:37

A conservative group's bashing of several Obama administration lawyers as the "al-Qaida Seven" has struck a nerve in the U.S. legal community, prompting even some fellow Republicans to denounce the group's attack.

In a video ad circulated over the Internet, the group called Keep America Safe questioned the values of a number of lawyers now working for the Justice Department who did legal work in the past on behalf of terror detainees. Keep America Safe was co-founded by Liz Cheney, daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney, the Republicans' most forceful critic of Obama administration security policies.

The Cheney-branded broadside won wide attention for the fledgling group. The attack follows a long history of Republican claims that Democrats are weaker than the GOP on national security. Whether this attack, which strains long-held American concepts of legal fair play, gathers momentum with the general public remains to be seen, but such criticism has long been used to energize activists on the GOP's right wing.

This time, however, a number of prominent conservative lawyers, including former special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, who served as solicitor general in the Justice Department during George H.W. Bush's administration, signed a letter decrying the attacks as "shameful."

Starr is perhaps best known as the former independent counsel whose office spent millions in the 1990s on a probe of then-President Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky and efforts to cover it up, which led to the president's impeachment by the House.

Among the letter's signers were veterans of George W. Bush's Justice Department, including Larry Thompson, who was deputy attorney general, and Viet Dinh, who helped write the Patriot Act. The signers even included Bush's former deputy assistant defense secretary for detainee affairs, Charles "Cully" Stimson, who resigned in 2007 while under fire for saying he found it shocking that lawyers at many top firms represent detainees at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"The American tradition of zealous representation of unpopular clients is at least as old as John Adams' representation of the British soldiers charged in the Boston massacre," their letter said. "To suggest that the Justice Department should not employ talented lawyers who have advocated on behalf of detainees maligns the patriotism of people who have taken honorable positions" and "demands a uniformity of background and view in government service from which no administration would benefit."

The letter was crafted by Ben Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank, who called the whole debate "a visible symptom of a broader disease" in an increasingly "coarse and stupid" public discussion of how to treat terror suspects.

"The right wants to pretend that this issue is a simple matter of toughness, saying, 'Are you man enough to think about al-Qaida as a war?' And the left throws out nonsense verbiage like 'respect the rule of law,' which basically means if you don't agree with their policy views you're disrespectful of the law," said Wittes.

Matt Bennett, a spokesman for the moderate Democratic group Third Way, said, "Republicans are guaranteed to call their opponents weak on security, regardless of who they are," and have forced Democrats to defend their national security credentials since the Vietnam War.

The issue of past legal work for detainees was first raised in a congressional hearing last year, where Republican senators pressed Attorney General Eric Holder to identify how many such lawyers had been hired by the Obama administration. Holder put them off, and the issue smoldered for months until the interest group went on the offensive.

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Holder is likely to face more such questions when he testifies on Capitol Hill this month, as well as new questions about a friend-of-the-court brief he signed years ago in a Supreme Court terror detention case.

Debra Burlingame, a co-founder of Keep America Safe, said its goal is to make the Obama administration answer questions about how it is making decisions about Guantanamo Bay detainees.

"This isn't an attack on lawyers for being lawyers," said Burlingame, a former lawyer whose brother Charles Burlingame was a pilot killed in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Video: Washington Post drops standards to publish Cheney defense "This is a question about who is setting policy, who is involved in advising the attorney general on policy," she said. "It is a legitimate question to ask."

For the most high-profile attorney in that group, the answer is simple.

Tony West, the head of the Justice Department's civil division, was once part of the legal team that represented John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban captured in Afghanistan.

As a member of the Obama administration, West now oversees the government's response to lawsuits by detainees seeking their freedom. In that position, he has signed dozens of legal briefs on detainee matters, most arguing for continued detention of the suspects.

The challenges directed at West and the other lawyers also strike at some core practices of U.S. lawyers — providing free representation for people who can't afford lawyers, or representing people so despised by the public it is difficult for them to hire a lawyer.

Ron Kuby, a longtime criminal defense lawyer in New York who has represented numerous terror defendants, called the questions about the Justice Department lawyers "cheap politics and McCarthyism."

The government can often benefit from hiring lawyers who worked for detainees in the past, Kuby argued, because someone who has worked on the other side of an issue often has important insights.

"If I ever were to decide that I could best serve the Constitution of the United States by locking up the people that I used to represent, I would be darn good at it," said Kuby. "I know how they think, I know what other defense lawyers do, I know every trick that people like me play."

"The right," joked Kuby, "has a problem with lawyers in general, until they need one."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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