Editor’s note: Michael Ackley’s columns may include satire and parody based on current events, and thus mix fact with fiction. He assumes informed readers will be able to tell which is which.
Lawyer talk is opaque at best, and Assistant U.S. Attorney General James M. Cole employed more than 1,700 words in this dense language to respond to the congressional request for “Fast & Furious” documents.
Seeking to make Cole’s letter comprehensible, we enlisted professor Howard Bashford, who occupies the famed Gustav Stickley Chair at the Harvard School of Law (of Harvard, Neb.). (Text in italics is directly from Cole’s missive.)
The professor declared Cole’s letter “a fine, lawyerly document, which means it is at once straightforward and obfuscatory. Great work! Great work!”
At this, Bashford’s head bent forward, and we thought he was again perusing the letter – until he began to snore. We shook his arm gently.
“Professor,” we said, and again, “PROFESSOR!” which startled him awake, muttering “stare decisis” and “res ipsa loquitur.” When he focused at last, we said, “Professor, what we want is for you to tell us – in plain English – what Cole’s letter says.”
“Plain English?” asked Bashford. “Glad to. There are a number of paragraphs – most of them, really – that are merely self-serving blather. However, there’s one line that tells us just about all we need to know.”
He ran his index finger down the pages until he found the sentence. “Here is it is,” he said. “The letter declares, and I quote, ‘The Department has substantially complied with the outstanding subpoena.’
“This may be translated: ‘We didn’t give you what you asked for, but it’s close enough.’”
Warming to the task, the professor noted another sentence. “Look at this,” he said. “The AG declares that ‘the inappropriate tactics used in Fast and Furious were initiated and carried out by personnel in the field over several years and were not initiated or authorized by Department leadership.’
“This means, ‘We’re not responsible for what happened on our watch.’ Clever, don’t you think? I must mention it in my lectures.”
“They’re really making new law here,” Bashford continued. “The letter says, ‘The documents responsive to the remaining subpoena items pertain to sensitive law enforcement activities, including ongoing criminal investigations and prosecutions, or were generated by Department officials in the course of responding to congressional investigations or media inquiries about this matter that are generally not appropriate for disclosure.’
“I’m fascinated by the concept that documents prepared in response to the news media are inappropriate for disclosure to Congress. You don’t suppose this means the AG personnel talked about dodging reporters’ questions, do you?”
“Then there’s this, Bashford continued, “‘We also offered to provide you with an understanding of the documents that we could not produce and to address any remaining questions that you had after you received the briefing and the documents on which it was based.’ This means, ‘Why don’t you just trust us?’”
“Finally,” said the professor, “we come to, ‘In brief, the compelled production to Congress of these internal Executive Branch documents (blah, blah, blah) would have significant, damaging consequences.’
“This means, ‘It would hurt US!”
“Thank you, professor,” we said. “And is it possible for you to sum up Mr. Cole’s letter in one sentence?”
“Sure,” said Bashford. “He told Congress, ‘Go pound salt down a rat hole.’”
Getting ahead of the story: Network news rooms were hives of excitement as the House of Representatives got ready to cite Attorney General Eric Holder for contempt of Congress and the president attempted to put “Fast & Furious” documents behind the screen of executive privilege.
As the big story unfolded, we sampled the broadcasts of NBC, CBS and ABC to see how these electronic media, developed and trained to respond quickly to breaking news, were treating the story.
On one, we found a feature on the problems facing retailer JCPenney. Another had a groundbreaking piece on antibiotics in beef and other meats. The third told us that Katy Perry’s new video had “gone viral” on the Web.
Fox and CNN were all over the executive privilege story, but broadcaster Rush Limbaugh had the day’s best line. Noting that lives were lost in the “Fast & Furious” operation, he noted that “for the first time in history” the actual crimes were worse than the political cover-up.