The Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is expected to vote on the nomination of Steven Bradbury to be general counsel for the Department of Transportation on Wednesday. Although the job isn’t normally a controversial one, this nominee is.
As acting director of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) under President George W. Bush, Bradbury was the primary author of four now-infamous memos that provided legal authorization for a range of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” that are widely considered methods of torture or cruel treatment. (His memos have since been discredited, and in 2009, were formally withdrawn.) Even if one believes his legal justifications were defensible at the time, the Senate should not approve a nominee who authorized some of the most damaging and embarrassing national security policies in recent U.S. history. The senators on the committee should reject his nomination.
At his nomination hearing in June, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) made a forceful case for why Bradbury should not be confirmed.
“Your willingness to aid and abet torture demonstrates a failure of moral and professional character that makes you dangerous regardless of which agency you serve in,” said Duckworth, who is also an Iraq war veteran. “You lacked the judgment to stand up and say what is morally right when pressured by the president of the United States, and I’m afraid you would do so again. I cannot oppose this nomination strongly enough.”
Bradbury, who since 2009 has been a commercial litigator representing corporate clients in the transportation industry, among others, defended his role in the Justice Department: “Every opinion I gave for O.L.C. represented my best judgment of what the laws in effect at that time required,” he said.
Bradbury’s memos concluded that waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions and forced nudity of detainees, among other things, either alone or in combination, did not violate the international Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), or the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 passed to similarly prohibit “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” of anyone in U.S. custody.
Of course, as General Counsel at the Department of Transportation, Bradbury wouldn’t likely be asked to provide legal cover for torture again. So what’s the problem?
It’s a matter of legal judgment. It’s also a matter of U.S. reputation – and the reputation of U.S. lawmakers.
Even during the Bush administration, both then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey and then-Acting Assistant Attorney General Daniel Levin expressed concerns that Bradbury, if appointed to fill the permanent Assistant Attorney General post, would not give independent advice.
Bradbury himself reinforced that impression when in 2007, testifying before Congress about the president’s legal interpretation of a Supreme Court case, he said: “The President is always right.” (He recently said he was only joking.)
Joking or not, Bradbury’s record authorizing torture makes clear he’s the wrong man for a top legal post in any administration.
As a nonpartisan group of former national security, law enforcement, intelligence, and interrogation professionals put it in a recent letter to senators: “If the Senate confirms Mr. Bradbury, it would send a clear message to the American public that authorizing the use of torture is not only acceptable but is not a barrier to advancement into the upper ranks of our government.” They added: “Torture is not a partisan issue.”
With a new administration, both parties now have an opportunity to move beyond a sorry chapter of recent history. Leading officials in the Trump administration, from Defense Secretary James Mattis to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to former Homeland Security Secretary and now White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, have all disavowed the use of torture for any purpose. Awarding one of the key figures who approved that torture with a plum legal job implicitly undermines that consensus, and taints not only the Trump administration, but everyone who votes to affirm him. There are plenty of other qualified, ethical and independent legal professionals who can assume the important role of providing legal advice to ensure the safety and security of our nation’s transportation systems.
It’s not in anyone’s interest to confirm Steven Bradbury for that job.