WASHINGTON — In naming Laurence Silberman as a co-chairman for the commission on intelligence gathering, President Bush has selected a longtime judge who is known for his acerbic conservative opinions.
In the eyes of his opponents, Silberman, who now works part time, has been a biased judge with a hair-trigger temper and a thinly veiled partisan tint to his opinions.
Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, a liberal legal group, blasted Silberman on Friday for his "long record of partisanship on the bench." She added, "This is not a statesman of the sort the president should be seeking to preside over this crucial and sensitive investigation."
Silberman's supporters respond that as a former deputy attorney general, foreign policy adviser to President Ronald Reagan and ambassador to Yugoslavia, the judge is uniquely qualified for the commission.
"I think Judge Silberman is one of the most, if not the most, knowledgeable person on the federal bench about the intersection of law and national security," said Viet Dinh, who was a clerk for Silberman and until recently was a high-ranking Justice Department official.
As for Silberman's temperament, Dinh said the judge merely expects a lot from his associates.
"He views the [legal] profession with profound respect," Dinh said. "That is the kind judge he has been, and it's the kind of commissioner he will be."
Silberman served 15 years on the federal appeals court based in Washington, which is considered the second-most powerful court in the nation after the Supreme Court. He now serves on a court that scrutinizes wiretap applications for national security purposes.
Among Silberman's most objectionable rulings, his critics note, was his participation in a 2-1 decision reversing the conviction of Oliver North for his role in the Iran-contra scandal. Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh and others later accused Silberman of bias.
Equally controversial, especially for its tone, was Silberman's 1998 opinion rejecting the Clinton administration's attempt to prevent Secret Service agents from being forced to testify before the grand jury convened by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr.
Silberman issued an opinion accusing Atty. Gen. Janet Reno of unethically acting as President Bill Clinton's personal lawyer rather than a representative of the U.S. government, and he charged Clinton with declaring war on Starr.
Abner Mikva, a former congressman from Chicago and White House counsel under Clinton, served on the District of Columbia court alongside Silberman and Judge Patricia Wald, another commission appointee.
Mikva declined to comment on Silberman, with whom he was known to sharply disagree.