The transcript of my interview with former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson is below. Though Gerson doubts he’ll be caught up in any investigation or commission proceedings, any senior Bush Adminstration official has got to realize immediately that the “senior counsel” to any “blue ribbon” commission could easily become Javert, in fact might be selected for his Javert-like qualities. The time to “lawyer-up” is now, and a call to Andy McCarthy for advice would be the first one I’d make if I had been within two arms-lengths of the prosecution of the war and the collection of intelligence. Further, every single professional up-and-down the line of the war effort has to begin wondering right now when the subpoena arrives.
HH: Joined now by Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, long time aide to former President Bush, speechwriter and consigliere in many respects. Michael Gerson, welcome back to the program, good to talk to you.
MG: Great to be with you again.
HH: I’d like to play for you a part of President Obama’s comments in the Oval Office today.
PBO: With respect to those who formulated those legal decisions, I would say that that is going to be more of a decision for the Attorney General within the parameters of various laws, and I don’t want to prejudge that.
HH: Michael Gerson, these are your friends they’re talking about, obviously. You might even be on of them. I guess you’re not a lawyer, but…
MG: No, I don’t think I am in this case. But I still, you know, but they are some of my friends.
HH: What do you…I think this is an enormous error. I think this is the launching of a witch hunt. What do you think?
MG: I think it’s a terrible error for a couple of reasons. One of them is that I think that the release of these memos, and now the talk of these prosecutions, is creating an atmosphere in which people in our intelligence services, people in our government, are going to be very timid about pursuing absolutely essential elements in the war on terror. This is creating an atmosphere that’s more like the pre-9/11 atmosphere when people were complacent and afraid to confront these problems. And I’m afraid that we’ve returned to that attitude, that we’re going to return to some of those outcomes eventually. And so I think it’s a serious challenge. Now let me make one more point here, which is if there are going to be investigations of people who knew about these things, and who approved of them, then that’s going to have to include Nancy Pelosi and Senator Rockefeller, who were both briefed, along with other members of the Intelligence community in Congress about thirty times on all of these techniques beginning in 2002. The fact of the matter is that this represents what was happening in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. the intelligence community had no idea if there were going to be further attacks, how large the al Qaeda network was in the United States. And they were pursuing by their best lights, according to their best legal interpretation, matters that they thought were essential to American security. You can’t criminalize that.
HH: Michael Gerson, I know there’s also talk of a bipartisan commission like the 9/11 Commission, which of course will be more witch hunt theater. But at that point, when do you start to lawyer up? Because when this stuff gets going, you know, it doesn’t stop anywhere. It goes off on a head hunt for anyone. And obviously, you had to have discussed, you wrote the speeches, about the need for surveillance, and the need to be proactive, and the need to go after al Qaeda. When do you lawyer up, Michael Gerson?
MG: Well, I haven’t been presented with that, and I hope not to. I mean, it’s one of the real concerns here. And this is true of people that were in the Clinton administration, it’s true of people in the Bush administration. I think it’s a real mistake to try to criminalize policy disagreements. You know, we can disagree with some of the things that the Clinton people did. You know, people disagree with things that people in the Bush administration did. But people were involved, for example, at the Justice Department, were making their best legal judgments. It’s very hard under those circumstances to try to impose a mindset, a kind of witch hunt mindset to people that thought they were doing their duty.
HH: Did you ever talk about waterboarding with anyone in the White House?
MG: No, those were, in fact, those techniques and approaches that were revealed in the memo were known by a very small group of people, on a kind of need to know basis. I didn’t know about them.
HH: Do you expect…how wide of a circle would that have been debated that among? You knew the White House pretty well, even if you’re not in the meetings on al Qaeda, how many people are we talking about? 20?
MG: I honestly don’t know the answer to that. Obviously, it would be the senior people who were involved in this, the lawyers at Justice, the people at the CIA who were involved in these efforts in the intelligence community, and the people at the White House that were involved as well.
HH: You know, I’m just shocked by this. I really am. This is a war that we’re in, Michael Gerson. You lived it every single day for your service to the President, and this is so cavalier and so deeply damaging the national security, I’m actually kind of stunned.
MG: Well, it is stunning certainly in one way, which is every member of the Obama administration could imagine circumstances where they might be forced to use such methods, okay? In fact, Leon Panetta, entering his own hearing, seemed to indicate that that was the case. If you face a circumstance with a nuclear or biological attack on an American city, you know, you may well employ sleep depravation to try to get information.
HH: Oh, I think waterboarding would make a comeback in a moment if, for example, the scenario outlined in Rich Lowry’s new book, Banquo’s Ghosts comes to pass. I don’t know if you’ve had the chance to read that yet, Michael Gerson, but it’s chillingly realistic, and I’ll leave it at that. I look forward to talking to you again soon, Michael Gerson of the Washington Post.