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Addington Displays Contempt for Congress

David Addington Testimony Photo David Addington, who helped craft the Bush administration's interrogation policies, testifies in a combative House Judiciary subcommittee hearing. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post) David Addington, chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, was testifying under subpoena yesterday to the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties. He took great delight in being a complete jackass, as Dana Milbank details.

Could the president ever be justified in breaking the law? “I’m not going to answer a legal opinion on every imaginable set of facts any human being could think of,” Addington growled. Did he consult Congress when interpreting torture laws? “That’s irrelevant,” he barked. Would it be legal to torture a detainee’s child? “I’m not here to render legal advice to your committee,” he snarled. “You do have attorneys of your own.”

He had the grace of Gollum as he quarreled with his questioners. In response to one of the chairman’s questions, he neither looked up nor spoke before finishing a note he was writing to himself. When Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) questioned his failure to remember conversations about interrogation techniques, he only looked at her and asked: “Is there a question pending, ma’am?” Finally, at the end of the hearing, Addington was asked whether he would meet privately to discuss classified matters. “You have my number,” he said. “If you issue a subpoena, we’ll go through this again.”

[…]

When John Conyers (D-Mich.) inquired about Addington’s pet legal concept, a “unitary executive theory” that confers extreme powers on the president, Addington dished out disdain.

“I frankly don’t know what you mean by unitary theory,” Addington replied. “Have you ever heard of that theory before?” “I see it in the newspapers all the time,” Addington replied. “Do you support it?” “I don’t know what it is.” The usually mild Conyers was angry. “You’re telling me you don’t know what the unitary theory means?” “I don’t know what you mean by it,” Addington answered. “Do you know what you mean by it?”

While I must admit chuckling all the way through the story at the spectacle, Phil Carter is not amused. “Calling Addington and Yoo hostile witnesses doesn’t begin to describe the level of their contempt for Congress, the hearing and the democratic processes that brought them to testify by way of a subpoena.”

Then again, it’s easy to have contempt for this particular process. Unlike Phil, I’m not an attorney. But it seems to me that these are precisely the kind of answers one ought expect from a hostile witness presented with inane, hypothetical questions.

Congress has every right — indeed, a duty — to investigate suspected wrongdoing on the part of the executive branch. But it’s far from clear how this set of questioning was supposed to be helpful toward that end. The man is an adviser to the vice president, not a would-be Supreme Court Justice. What difference does it make what his pet theories of executive power are? What matters is what actions the president and his team actually took.

Wouldn’t it have been far more useful, then, to ask specific questions about specific activities that took place in Addington’s presence? Indeed, it appears that, in the rare times that was the case, Addington was much more forthcoming.

Addington didn’t submit written testimony and barely had an oral presentation, preferring instead to simply answer — or, as the case often was, not answer — questions presented to him. Nor does the subcommittee yet have a transcript of the testimony available. But, relying on other press accounts such as Dan Eggen’s report for WaPo, Scott Shane’s NYT account, and this AP report it appears that Addington in fact cooperated when Members asked him substantive questions.

For example,

Addington, who has been widely described as one of the key forces behind the Bush administration’s most aggressive counterterrorism policies, said some reports of his involvement were overstated. He said, for example, that he was briefed by Yoo about his 2002 memo but that he had no role in shaping it. Addington also said he was more deeply involved in the CIA’s interrogation program than the one used by the Pentagon at the military detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Under the CIA program, high-level detainees were kept in secret prisons abroad and subjected to harsh interrogation tactics, including waterboarding, or simulated drowning.

Or,

Mr. Addington recalled discussing the document with Mr. Yoo and Alberto R. Gonzales, then counsel to President Bush.

“My memory is of Professor Yoo coming over to see the counsel to the president and I was invited in the meeting with the three of us, and he gave us an outline of ‘here are the subjects I’m going to address,’ ” Mr. Addington said.

“We said, ‘Good,’ ” he added. “And he goes off and writes the opinion.”

More questioning along those lines might have gotten us somewhere. Instead, we got nonsense about hypothetical child torture or questions based on journalistic fantasies of Bush’s mind.

UPDATE: Kevin Drum and Steven Bainbridge offer interesting insights on this that are in line with my own impressions. I’m rather pleased, having expected to be an outlier with this take. This, despite Drum seeing my “complete jackass” and raising it with an “Addington is not only an arrogant prick, he’s the kind of person who revels in being an arrogant prick.”

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    Addington properly recognizes that the Democrat are fishing for someting to toss into the election season.

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  2. Anderson says:

    The problem, as usual, is that Congressmen are much more interested in grandstanding on a shaky grasp of the record, than they are in getting to the facts.

    Had even one Rep delegated his questioning to Philippe Sands (author of Torture Team), Marty Lederman, or Scott Horton, then Addington would’ve been questioned by someone who really knew which questions to ask. Even a staffer familiar with those men’s work could’ve done better.

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  3. […] Via Outside the Beltway, this Milbank piece on David Addington’s ‘testimony’ yesterday, about which Joyner states: […]

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  4. Hoodlumman says:

    If only oil executives would throw crap questions and grandstanding statements back at demagoguing congressfolk as effective as Addington did…

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  5. just me says:

    The problem, as usual, is that Congressmen are much more interested in grandstanding on a shaky grasp of the record, than they are in getting to the facts.

    This is really the crux of the matter.

    Congressional hearings often are more about the egos of the congress members involved, grandstanding and going for sound bites on the nightly news than really getting at the truth of anything.

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  6. yetanotherjohn says:

    Gee, I wonder if the democrats tone might not have made him a bit of a testy witness.

    Addington said he couldn’t discuss certain interrogation techniques because “Al Qaeda may watch C-SPAN,” which was televising the hearing.

    Delahunt responded: “Right, well, I’m sure they are watching, and I’m glad they finally have a chance to see you Mr. Addington.”

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  7. Jeff Quinton says:

    Then there’s coverage like Mark Levin’s or RedState’s which makes the behavior of Congressman Delahunt during this hearing the major issue:
    http://www.redstate.com/stories/congress/damn_us_all_and_our_party_if_we_let_this_go

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  8. Alex Knapp says:

    I watched part of the testimony, and I noted that when Addington was asked specifics, he had a pretty damaging case of the “I can’t recalls.”

    That said, it was just embarrassing grandstanding on the part of Congress. The issues being investigated go to the very heart of our Constitutional republic and all they give a shit about are their own petty little careers.

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  9. mike says:

    Those exchanges made me laugh out loud in the office. i can just imagine the time and money put into setting all this up, subpoenas and everything else just so a much of congressmen can grandstand when there are serious issues that need to be looked at. And Congress wonders why its approval rating is so low.

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  10. Patrick T. McGuire says:

    Addington said he couldn’t discuss certain interrogation techniques because “Al Qaeda may watch C-SPAN,” which was televising the hearing.

    I didn’t see the live coverage. Is it going to be coming out on DVD? If so, I would buy a copy.

    Gotta love it when the liberal weenies in Congress are shown the respect they deserve.

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  11. Dodd says:

    When John Conyers (D-Mich.) inquired about Addington’s pet legal concept, a “unitary executive theory” that confers extreme powers on the president, Addington dished out disdain.

    “I frankly don’t know what you mean by unitary theory,” Addington replied.

    Nor, apparently, does Dana Milbank.

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  12. vnjagvet says:

    Anderson has it right on the money. There would be a lot more cooperation between the executive and legislative branches if that gotcha bs was less frequent.

    It is especially galling when the congresscritters are so obviously unprepared, using the fact they have the witness under oath to attempt to put him/her on the spot.

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  13. James Joyner says:

    Nor, apparently, does Dana Milbank.

    Indeed. As I understand it, “unitary executive” theory holds that Article II confers all of the powers of that branch unto the president and that the bureaucracy therefore is subject to the commands of the president. It’s not a particularly novel idea, really.

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  14. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    James, I just read Article II of the Constitution. Seems it gives all of the executive powers to the President. Wasn’t hard to glean that from the document nor did it take a 100 page opinion from the SCOTUS. Funny, the document seems to say exactly what it says. I have not needed an interpreter for some time now in understanding what the Constitution says. At worst, Webster’s but then I am not burdened with a Juris Doctorate to cloud my thinking.

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  15. sam says:

    I have not needed an interpreter for some time now in understanding what the Constitution says.

    Well, at least not since yesterday when you required instruction on the doctrine of incorporation.

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  16. Bithead says:

    I didn’t see the live coverage. Is it going to be coming out on DVD? If so, I would buy a copy.

    Is this what you’re looking for? (Vid links here)

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  17. Alex Knapp says:

    Indeed. As I understand it, “unitary executive” theory holds that Article II confers all of the powers of that branch unto the president and that the bureaucracy therefore is subject to the commands of the president. It’s not a particularly novel idea, really.

    That’s the theory, but it’s actually pretty readily refuted by reference to court cases, the Administrative Procedures Act and some other ready commonsense concepts. Maybe I’ll write an article on that…

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  18. anjin-san says:

    Congress continues to be unimpressive…

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  19. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    My God, Alex, just read the Constitution. Article II is pretty clear as to what powers the President or executive branch has. All those powers are vested in the President. I don’t care what some liberal court says. If you need a court to decide what the Constitution says, you give up most of your rights and freedom to the whims of people not elected.

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  20. PD Shaw says:

    As I understand the unitary executive theory (which seems to be analyzied more on the left than the right), its premised on Federalist No. 70.

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  21. Kathy says:

    James,

    Thank you for a superb post. You said everything that needed to be said.

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  22. Quote of the day:…

    A true outrage:
    “I’m glad they finally have a chance to see you.”
    That was Rep. William Delahunt (D-MA-10), also an Obama superdelegate, responding to the VP’s Chief of Staff David Addington’s comment during a House Subcom…

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  23. davod says:

    “Growled, snarling. He had the grace of Gollum”

    Methinks Milbank may well be biased.

    Phil Carter is a hostile witness for anyone in the Bush Administration.

    Having said that. I watched part of the testimony, and from the start the Democratic part of the Congressional panel treated these guys with disdain.

    As far as the need to fulfill Congressional oversight, you do not need an open hearing to achieve this.

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  24. Bithead says:

    Methinks Milbank may well be biased.

    Gee…. Ya think?

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  25. Davebo says:

    Obviously if we want to get straight answers from Addington we need to incorporate some of those “enhanced interrogation techniques”.

    If he doesn’t want to discuss them now, perhaps he’ll be more willing to once experiencing them.

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  26. Alex Knapp says:

    My God, Alex, just read the Constitution. Article II is pretty clear as to what powers the President or executive branch has. All those powers are vested in the President. I don’t care what some liberal court says.

    Actually, some federal agencies, while nominally in the executive branch, are actually acting on authority delegated to them by Congress and controlled by Article I. Additionally, other parts of the Constitution allow both Congress and the Courts to constrain Presidential action. Article II does not exist in a vacuum, and in order to be fully understood it has to be read in the context of the whole Constitution.

    PD –

    Federalist No. 70 is about the need to have one president, instead of an executive committee, not about the power of the Presidency. See Federalist No. 69 for more of Hamilton’s views.

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  27. […] points out, most of the questions had little to do with the subject matter the hearing was supposed to be about: Then again, it’s easy to have contempt for this particular process. Unlike Phil, I’m […]

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  28. Bithead says:

    Gee, I wonder if the democrats tone might not have made him a bit of a testy witness.

    Again… Gee, Ya Think?

    During the course of the hearing, Congressman and Obama Superdelegate William Delahunt (MA-10) asked Mr. Addington about water boarding. Mr. Addington responded that he would not go into details because Al Qaeda is probably watching.

    Congressman Delahunt’s response was, “I’m glad they finally have a chance to see you.”

    Mr. Delahunt now denies he meant what he said. But what he clearly said was “I’m glad they finally have a chance to see you.” Al Qaeda now knows the face of one of the men who relentlessly pursues its henchmen and deals with their interrogations. Mr. Addington volunteered for public service, not a death sentence with Congressional encouragement. Mr. Delahunt is both a vile liar and a cowardly lion willing to roar down at Mr. Addington while encouraging terrorists to do his dirty work in a war he has been ineffective at stopping.

    Addington’s responses were more than justified, given the conditions.

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  29. […] Addington Displays Contempt for Congress » Outside The Beltway | OTB #law #politics #us […]

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  30. Beldar says:

    It’s amazing to me how becoming a U.S. Representative or Senator immediately destroys whatever ability one might have previously had at framing tight, short, specific questions.

    There actually are a few Congress-critters who made a good living at being courtroom lawyers before they moved to Washington, and I know that they must have honed those questioning skills. But when they have a public office and they’re in front of TV cameras, they can’t help making speeches. They can neither ask a series of short, tight leading questions (to commit a witness, usually preparatory to springing a trap) or a thoughtful open-ended, non-leading question (to actually find out something useful).

    During his confirmation hearings, Chief Justice Roberts earned some special kind of sainthood by passing up countless opportunities to say: “That question is the stupidest thing I’ve heard come out of a human mouth since, oh, Sen. ____’s stupid question __ minutes ago, but it ‘s still in my all-time top 30.” (Roberts’ patience shows his consummate skill and remarkable experience as an appellate oral advocate, a profession in which one emphatically may not succeed unless one assiduously conceals his reactions to stupid questions from nominal authorities.)

    If I were called to testify before Congress, I suspect I’d behave pretty much like Addington. I, too, suffer from an inability to suffer fools gladly. Conyers and his ilk are pathetic.

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  31. Beldar says:

    (By the way, my comment just above was a bi-partisan criticism. Republican Congress-critters are, in general, just as feeble questioners as Democrats.)

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