Three occurrences in the past week have given us a picture of American justice as it has become over the past six and a half years under the administration of President George W. Bush.
They also provide the American people a measure of how far the country will need to come after he has left office to get back to a situation that is more consistent with basic American principles of justice.
The first is a decision last Friday by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The panel ruled that the prisoners held by the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay and their lawyers, along with the courts, have the right to see the information that serves as the government's case against them in support of their continued, indefinite detention. Some 360 are held at Guantanamo. In some cases detainees -- uncharged and untried -- have been held for more than five years. The Bush administration has indicated that it plans to appeal the court ruling against it.
The second is that after years of confusion, Mr. Bush has now issued an executive order stating what interrogation methods can be employed by the Central Intelligence Agency in questioning detainees it holds. The guidelines do not apply to prisoners held by the U.S. military. They govern what forms of coercion are acceptable for the CIA to use, without reference to the Geneva Conventions Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, never mind to American standards of just plain, decent treatment of fellow human beings.
The real problem with both of these dictums is that they deal only implicitly with the question of what happens when some other country or body captures an American military or civilian person and deals with him in an improper fashion. The United States will have no moral defense to provide because the captor can quite rightly ask if the prisoner or the U.S. government happens to have read American policy on the same subject, as laid down by the Bush White House.
The third piece of appalling behavior in the area of what passes for U.S. justice in the Bush years occurred during Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's latest appearance before the Congress on Tuesday. The inconsistencies between what he said and what his subordinates and he had previously said on various subjects, including the firing of U.S. attorneys and domestic surveillance, turned up again. Perhaps the lowest moment came when, asked about the testimony of former Justice Department Director of Public Affairs Monica M. Goodling before the Congress, Mr. Gonzales characterized her as "an emotionally distraught woman."
That remark was glaringly inappropriate and sexist in nature. Even worse is the fact that, if that were an accurate description of Ms. Goodling, how was it that she served for six years in senior Justice Department positions under Mr. Gonzales and his predecessor, John Ashcroft?
This Justice Department and American justice in general as it has become under Mr. Bush is going to take a long time to recover from his term in office, perhaps even as long as America's foreign relations and armed forces will take.