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Senate Begins Confirmation Hearings for Trump FBI Pick Tied to Torture, Gitmo

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The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a confirmation hearing today for FBI director nominee Christopher Wray. He is former assistant attorney general in the Justice Department during the George W. Bush administration, to be the next FBI director. He is also the former personal attorney for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Trump ally. Wray’s background is raising questions about his ability to remain impartial as the head of the nation’s premier law enforcement agency. For more, we speak with Marcy Wheeler, an independent journalist who covers national security and civil liberties.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a confirmation hearing today for FBI director nominee Christopher Wray. Wray served as assistant attorney general under George W. Bush from 2003 to 2005, at a time when the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel signed off on the use of torture against detainees in CIA and military custody.

Still with us, Marcy Wheeler in Grand Rapids, Michigan, independent journalist who covers national security and civil liberties.

The significance of Christopher Wray, what you think he needs to be asked and who he is, Marcy?

MARCY WHEELER: People are most aware of the fact that he represented Chris Christie on Bridgegate. And there are questions about whether he was fully forthcoming on that. I mean, he’s a defense attorney. Everyone deserves a defense attorney. That will get a lot of attention from Democrats today.

There are things that happened when he was at DOJ that both help and hurt his case, I think. He was one of the people who, in 2004, when Jim Comey stood up to Dick Cheney and threatened to resign if Stellar Wind was not put on better legal framework—is one of the people who reportedly was going to resign. And he gets a lot of credit for that. But we’ll see what that really means.

I’m more concerned about some other things, such as, in the early days of the investigation into who outed Valerie Plame, he continued to brief John Ashcroft about the investigation generally, but also Karl Rove’s role in the investigation. And that was really inappropriate, because he was informing Ashcroft about stuff that had gotten Ashcroft into that position, and that’s directly analogous to where we are today. Would Christopher Wray brief Trump on what is happening on the investigation into Trump? That question needs to be asked and answered.

You mentioned torture. He is known to have gone to Gitmo. He is known to have been involved in torture. But the details about his role in torture are all still redacted. They’re all over these ACLU documents they got in a FOIA, but we don’t know what the substance of it is.

And then, finally, during the period he was the assistant attorney general for Criminal Division, he oversaw a deal with Chiquita, the banana company. Chiquita, as you recall, had been materially supporting terrorism in Colombia, both sides, so both the right-wing terrorists and the left-wing terrorists. And the company itself paid a penalty, but no Chiquita executive was held accountable for that. So, you know, it’s this classic case of double standard of justice. If a young Muslim man had been found to have done the kind of material support for terrorism that Chiquita did, that young man would be facing 30 years of prison time. But when they’re white Republicans, they end up facing no punishment at all for knowingly supporting terrorism. And he was very much involved in that negotiation. So I’d love to see him be asked questions about that.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, this issue of heading up the Justice Department’s Criminal Division from 2003 to ’05 under George W. Bush, Wray responsible for investigating CIA abuses of prisoners, including the deaths of two men in Afghanistan and Iraq, what about that?

MARCY WHEELER: Right. So there is one case where, under Wray, they charged a guy named David Passaro, who was a CIA contractor, for assault in a case where an Afghan detainee was killed. And his supporters, Wray’s supporters, are going to say, "Look, he’s opposed to torture, because he prosecuted the only guy tied to the CIA who got prosecuted for torture." And that’s actually a false claim.

If you look at Passaro’s case, there are—it looks to be that—because there were DOD people involved in that interrogation, as well, it looks to be sort of DOD saying CIA is finally going to be held accountable for all their abuse. And a bunch of key DOD witnesses were withheld from Passaro while he was being tried. More importantly, just in—just as they were about to charge David Passaro, they took a bunch of documents away from him, which there’s very good reason to believe that Passaro knew about the findings supporting torture. He knew that Cofer Black had signed off on torture. He knew that George Tenet had signed off on torture. Those documents were—I don’t know whether he had those documents, but a bunch of documents, as backup, were taken away from him. He was given misleading information about what the standard for interrogation was at the time he was in Afghanistan. And that was all then not included in his trial. Had it been, then I think that it would have been a lot more likely to blow up the fact that the entire chain of command within CIA had bought off on torture at the period where he killed this detainee.

So, you know, again, Wray’s supporters are going to say, "Look, he’s anti-torture." That’s not the case. This was a case—this was—they needed a scapegoat. They went after this guy Passaro. Maybe he was as guilty as they claim, but I don’t think he got a—I don’t think he got a fair trial. But more importantly, it wasn’t a case of justice being served in the way it should be.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, I just wanted to go back to one issue regarding what is enveloping the White House now. President Trump didn’t have a public event in the last three days. He heads off to Paris tonight, invited by the French president for Bastille Day. He’ll hold a very brief presser tomorrow. But The Washington Post reporting on a concerted effort to go after journalists right now, from the White House. I was just watching a discussion with the head of the White House Correspondents’ Association. The White House had approached him, Jeff Mason, head of the White House Correspondents’ Association—he’s with Reuters—to criticize another journalist’s work. And specifically going after journalists now, going back through their past to discredit journalists, as they, themselves, at the White House, are embroiled in this scandal, Marcy?

MARCY WHEELER: Part of me says, "Good luck," because these are great journalists. The ones—the four people who bylined on that story include people who have taken on Dick Cheney in the past, people who have exposed some real intelligence scandals in the past—Apuzzo and Goldman, who exposed the NYPD spying scandal. And so, they’re good journalists. What you’re going to find, if you go into their background, is that they have a history of telling really important stories. In fact, DOJ has gone after Goldman and Apuzzo before on another story that, you know, raised questions about the CIA’s counterterrorism programs. You know, I don’t think that’s going to help the White House, especially given that in this case the key smoking gun, as you called it, is the email that Don Jr. released himself. I mean, how are you going to go after the journalists, when your son is the one who released the key piece of evidence?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Marcy Wheeler, I want to thank you for being with us, independent journalist who covers national security and civil liberties, runs the website EmptyWheel.net, speaking to us from Grand Rapids, Michigan.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Mexico City, and we go to Canada, to learn about a surveillance program that the Mexican government is using to go after those investigating the killing or the disappearance of the 43 students in 2014. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.

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