Mukasey’s Paradox

Jonathan Turley is a professor of law at George Washington University.

The recent decisions of Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey to block any prosecution of Bush administration officials for contempt and to block any criminal investigation of torture led to a chorus of criticism. Many view the decisions as raw examples of political manipulation of the legal process and overt cronyism. I must confess that I was one of those crying foul until I suddenly realized that there was something profound, even beautiful, in Mukasey’s action.

In his twisting of legal principles, the attorney general has succeeded in creating a perfect paradox. Under Mukasey’s Paradox, lawyers cannot commit crimes when they act under the orders of a president -- and a president cannot commit a crime when he acts under advice of lawyers.

Such a perfect paradox is no easy task. Most attempts fall apart because of some element of logical consistency. The closest example to Mukasey’s Paradox is the Grandfather Paradox: If you go back in time and kill your grandfather before he meets your grandmother, you would not be conceived and therefore you could not go back to kill your grandfather. That one can play real tricks with your head.

Mukasey’s Paradox appears designed to play tricks with Congress. Its origins date back to Mukasey’s confirmation hearings, when he first denied knowing what waterboarding was and then (when it was defined for him) refused to recognize it as torture. In fact, it is not only a crime under U.S. law, it is a well-defined war crime under international law.


The problem for Mukasey was that if he admitted waterboarding was a crime, then it was a crime that had been authorized by the president of the United States -- an admission that would trigger calls for both a criminal investigation and impeachment. Mukasey’s confirmation was facing imminent defeat over his refusal to answer the question when Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) suddenly rescued him, guaranteeing that he would not have to answer it.

Once in office, Mukasey still had the nasty problem of a secret torture program that was now hiding in plain view. Asked to order a criminal investigation of the program, Mukasey refused. His rationale left many lawyers gasping: Any torture that occurred was done on the advice of counsel and therefore, while they may have been wrong, it could not have been a crime for CIA interrogators or, presumably, the president. If this sounds ludicrous, it is. Under that logic, any president can simply surround himself with extremist or collusive lawyers and instantly decriminalize any crime.

However, this is only half of Mukasey’s Paradox. The other half occurred last week when Mukasey refused to allow contempt charges against White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers to be given to a grand jury. Bolten and Miers stand accused of contempt in refusing to testify before Congress in its investigation of the firings of several U.S. attorneys in 2006. Mukasey wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that their refusal to testify could not be a crime because the president ordered them not to testify under executive privilege.

Under this logic, no official can be prosecuted for contempt as long as a president ordered them to commit the contempt -- even if the president’s assertion of privilege is clearly invalid or incomplete. In this case, many experts have expressed skepticism that all or any of President Bush’s assertions of privilege in this case would be upheld.

When Mukasey blocked the contempt cases, many legal experts were filled with rage. But I came to see his rationales as objects of beauty rather than scorn. When one combines the two decisions, they fit neatly into Mukasey’s Paradox. Mukasey was saying that lawyers could not be charged criminally because the president ordered them to commit the act -- and that the president could not be charged criminally because lawyers told him he could do it.

Now some have pointed to other paradoxes in Mukasey’s tenure. There is, for instance, the “paradox” that his confirmation was saved by Democrats -- who thereby allowed the president to avoid a confrontation on torture. There is the “paradox” of Mukasey insisting that courts should not investigate the Justice Department’s failure to preserve the CIA torture tapes because the Justice Department should be allowed to investigate its own failure to previously investigate.

Yet these are not real paradoxes -- they’re merely political ironies. A paradox is a statement that seems true but yields a contradiction or a dual truth. When reduced to its purest form, Mukasey’s Paradox is that government officials cannot violate the law -- but that because executive privilege is also a law, it’s sometimes necessary to violate the law in order to uphold the law.

Mukasey’s Paradox will now join other paradoxes such as Zeno’s Paradox. Indeed, members of Congress already use a variation of Zeno’s Paradox to explain their lack of action on civil liberties, torture and Iraq. They seem to be always working toward “change” without actual change occurring. The answer is found in Zeno’s Paradox: You will never reach Point B from Point A as you must always get halfway there, and half of the half, and half of that half, and so on.

Mukasey’s Paradox, if adopted, will result in administration officials being effectively beyond the reach of the law. Yet there is always hope.

Consider that Mukasey took an oath under which he swore to uphold the laws of this country -- even if the violator is the president of the United States or his aides. That oath means that all laws must be upheld without exception. Except, according to his interpretation, that executive power is a form of constitutional law that creates exceptions to the enforcement of laws.

But there’s something known as the Exception Paradox, which goes as follows: If there is an exception to every rule, then every rule must have at least one exception, including the rule that there must be an exception to every rule. Thus, perhaps this is a rule without exception, and the president cannot order criminal acts.

But that brings us back to Mukasey’s Paradox. Even if there is no exception to the president ordering crimes, there is no crime because the president ordered it. Perfection.