More McCarthyism From McCarthy

It’s been a rough couple weeks for Liz Cheney and Bill Kristol’s right-wing outfit Keep America Safe and its media apologists. The group’s now-infamous “Department of Jihad” ad questioning the loyalties of Justice Department officials who had represented Guantanamo detainees seems to have backfired badly, recalling Talleyrand’s quip: “it was worse than a crime, it was a blunder.” The ad was denounced by figures from across the political spectrum; most notable was a letter from nearly twenty prominent Republican lawyers, including top former Bush administration officials like Ted Olson, David Rivkin, Lee Casey, John Bellinger, and Philip Zelikow, that excoriated Cheney’s attack as “shameful”. A day later, former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen — a notable torture apologist and current Washington Post columnist who was one of the few to defend the ad — had what was widely described as a disastrous encounter with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.

In the wake of the backlash, Cheney’s defenders seem to have decided to drop their original allegations that the DOJ lawyers were active al-Qaeda sympathizers (the clear upshot of the ad’s question “whose values do they share?”) and instead portray the controversy as a mere transparency issue. It’s not that they are accusing the DOJ lawyers of being a pro-Qaeda fifth column, the Keep America Safe crowd now tells us, but simply that they think the public has a right to know that backgrounds of all government officials.

If Keep America Safe was hoping to moderate its image, however, Andy McCarthy didn’t get the memo. The former prosecutor and frequent National Review Online contributor (also a fellow at the neoconservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies) weighed in on Saturday, writing that “I believe many of the attorneys who volunteered their services to al Qaeda were, in fact, pro-Qaeda or, at the very least, pro-Islamist”. He later softens the accusation slightly, suggesting that “the relevant question with respect to progressive lawyers is not so much whether they are pro-Qaeda as it is whether, as between Islamists and the U.S. as it exists, they have more sympathy for the Islamists.” On the contrary, I would think that the question of whether the U.S. Department of Justice is “pro-Qaeda” is in fact highly relevant.

This is, of course, not the first time that McCarthy has wandered off the reservation. As National Review has attempted in recent months to impose some semblance of intellectual standards, and purge the outright nutters and conspiracy theorists from the “respectable” right, McCarthy’s colleagues have frequently been forced to scold him publicly for indulging in tropes from the lunatic fringe. (I’ve recounted some of McCarthy’s exploits here and here.)

In October 2008, at the height of the presidential campaign, McCarthy penned the all-time classic “Did Obama Write “Dreams from My Father” … Or Did Ayers?,” which suggested that former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers may have been the real author of Obama’s first book. This forced fellow NRO contributor Jonathan Adler to remark that McCarthy’s accusations were “outlandish” and “nutter-territory stuff”. In June 2009, in the wake of Iran’s post-election crisis, McCarthy suggested that Obama was intentionally siding with Khamenei and Ahmadinejad against the protesters, because “as a man of the hard Left, Obama is more comfortable with a totalitarian Islamic regime than he would be with a free Iranian society.” He speculated that Obama’s first choice would have been to “issue a statement supportive of the mullahs,” but because this was politically impossible he settled for “the next best thing: to say nothing supportive of the freedom fighters.” This prompted National Review editor-in-chief Rich Lowry to step in and tersely dismiss McCarthy’s allegations.

The kicker came in July 2009, after National Review published an editorial attempting to squelch the “birther” phenomenon once and for all. While the editors were likely hoping to increase their respectability by silencing the far right (just as magazine founder Bill Buckley famously expelled the John Birch Society from the mainstream conservative movement), McCarthy quickly put to rest any hopes that the birthers would go quietly into the night. McCarthy responded with a long critique of the editorial. As I wrote in July:

While conceding the craziness of the allegation that Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate was a fake, McCarthy raised a host of new allegations against the president. These include, in no particular order: that Obama was secretly adopted by his mother’s second husband; that he was a secret Muslim in his youth (although McCarthy concedes that he is now a “professed” Christian); that he was (and remains) an Indonesian citizen; that he made a “mysterious” trip to Pakistan in his youth; that he intervened in the 2006 Kenyan election in an attempt to install “a Marxist now known to have made a secret agreement with Islamists to convert Kenya to sharia law”; finally, that his pitching abilities mark him as “something less than Sandy Koufax.”

This time, it was NRO contributor Kevin Williamson’s turn to step in and try to talk sense into McCarthy; he accused McCarthy of making common cause with “kooks…[who] engage in intemperate, paranoid, hysterical speculation, and not always from the best of motives.”

Somehow, I doubt if McCarthy’s latest intervention is going to do much to help Keep America Safe’s sagging fortunes. The real questions: when will the right stop treating him as its go-to guy for stories related to detainee policy, and when will mainstream media outlets like the New York Times stop treating him as a credible source? The Times ran a lengthy profile of McCarthy in February which contained no mention of its the man’s history of nutty statements — a history that makes clear that he is, to be perfectly blunt, a crank.

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.