The Bush-Obama Administration appoints a confused torturer

James B. Comey, Jr. at the beginning of his career, at a time he was confused about torture. Testifying before the Judiciary Committee on October 29, 2003. (Photo: Reuters/Mannie Garcia.)

James B. Comey, Jr. at the beginning of his career, at a time he was confused about torture. Testifying before the Judiciary Committee on October 29, 2003. (Photo: Reuters/Mannie Garcia.)

James B. Comey, Jr., the nominee to direct the Federal Bureau of Investigation, testified at his Senate confirmation hearings today.

Comey is mostly famous for his nearly two years as the Deputy Attorney General during the George W. Bush Administration (December 2003-August 2005). Part of Mr. Comey’s duties in this position was to approve Justice Department legal opinions. Among the most important of which was the legal opinion granting the green light to the Administration in 2005 to use waterboarding (a technique universally acknowledged until them, including by the Justice Department during the Reagan Administration, as illegal and prohibited torture) as an interrogation technique.

The fact that he is now nominated to run the federal government’s chief law enforcement agency (one which, for example, is required to prosecute persons who engage in water boarding) by a President who, when a candidate had nothing good to say about torturers and their enablers (of whom, it must be admitted, Mr. Comey is one) shows what Mr. Obama’s priorities are in his second term. Unlike what many liberals hoped (against the evidence), namely that his (deeply) repressed progressive nature would be unleashed, the President appears to be planning for his retirement, and signaling to the plutocratic class that he is one of them, and certainly worthy of the  speaking fees and foundation positions that our rulers from the aristocracy of wealth dole out to their faithful servants.

I say this because Mr. Comey is otherwise an odd choice for the kind of liberal Democrat Mr. Obama likes to show himself as. Mr. Comey donated to the campaigns of both of Mr. Obama’s opponents: John McCain and Mitt Romney. But it is in his unerring career choices that Mr. Comey shows the way to tap the rivers of gold that flow from the permanent establishment. After leaving the George W. Bush Administration in the good hands of Alberto Gonzales, Mr. Comey refilled his bank account at Lockheed-Martin, one of the pillars of the military-industrial complex, which not only make politicians but refills the bank accounts of those faithful toilers in the field of government who are loyal to their profit-maximizing principles. After a five year pit-stop there, Mr. Comey passed through the banking world, including a stint as director of HSBC Holding Company, who happened to need someone with contacts in the Justice Department to work out the operational kinks in its settlement for aiding money laundering. Mr. Comey thus has all the resume highlights that Mr. Obama likes, as in the case of his appointments of Valerie Caproni or Mary Jo White, for example.

You can see why such a man would be appealing to Mr. Obama, who is now auditioning for his retirement by highlighting how his Administration is merely an extension of the Bush-Cheney regime.

But in one respect is our current avatar of the Bush-Obama regnum different from the first one: This one dislikes obvious contradictions. He hates it so much he will talk and talk and talk until all liberals agree that there simply was no contradiction. So how to explain appointing a Republican lawyer who authorized the Justice Department approval of illegal torture?

It appears the strategy here was to reach for a psychological explanation. This was not a case of a cynical lawyer who worked in a cynical administration now flipping for a position in another cynical administration. Oh, no! This was a man, deeply conflicted, to the depth of his soul. The ungodly Law said one thing, while his soul was with the angels and his new (he hopes) employer. The New York Times today tells it thus:

“Even though I as a person, as a father, as a leader thought, ‘That’s torture — We shouldn’t be doing that kind of thing,’ I discovered that it’s actually a much harder question to interpret this 1994 statute, which I found very vague,” Mr. Comey, 52, said at the hearing.

 Who among us has not felt the conflict between being a parent and being a devoted follower of Blackstone? And surely there is some equitable, if we can’t find a legal, principle that says when a law is vague, just authorize what your employer really wants to do. After all, saying truth, based on morality, to power is so 16th Century. Nowadays we have places to go, people to meet, bank accounts to fill. And those considerations all say one thing: Torture? It’s too confusing.

But that’s not all. Our hero actually went further and tried with all his gosh-darn might to stop the thing he, as a father, found so repellant. So he told Alberto Gonzales, a man universally respected for his ability to mingle politics and law, to tell the White House how much his soul as a father was against this evil. (His soul, it needn’t be mentioned, was  considerably less deep than his pocketbook, as we have seen.) Again The Times:

Mr. Comey said that he urged the attorney general at the time, Alberto R. Gonzales, to make his point directly to the White House.

“He took my — actually literally took my notes with him to a meeting at the White House and told me he made my argument in full and that the principals were fully on board with the policy, and so my argument was rejected,” he said.

And so, just as in a fairy tale, the story ended. No, he didn’t prevail. They actually went ahead and tortured people in violation of law, but in conformity with the legal opinion Mr. Comey approved. No, the fairy tale ending is that He now changed his mind. Torture is illegal! Just like his new employer once said.

And so there you have another gratifying tale of how our government works. Yes, Virginia, there is principle in government. There is also principal, interest and equity. Yes, those terms are all ambiguous. But a truly great soul like Mr. Comey can navigate the ambiguities and find himself both enriched and empowered. Just like in a fairy tale.

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