A cesspool by any other name

Marc Ambinder is doubtless a very smart man. That's why he blogs about politics for The Atlantic, and people read what he has to say. I read and reread and then refreshed the page and reread again everything he wrote during the weeks and months leading up to the last election, and found his insight invaluable. So it is disappointing to read "analysis" as trite and facile as this:
The Atlantic's coverage of the first 100 days of the Obama presidency begins next week, assuming the geeks don't rise. But this blog will focus on the second 100 days. I've been trying to figure out what the White House is using as an internal frame -- and what they'd like to see as the end result. In the end, it's fairly simple. And it explains why the White House is publicly and privately resisting a new investigation into the past.


Now then -- it's clear why Obama never wanted a torture commission, or some sort of a special counsel for torture -- or anything like that. Wait -- how did I manage to transition to this subject without transitioning? "Unnecessary battles." Obama said it many times during the campaign: as president, he did not want to refight the ideological and policy battles of the past eight years. Obama won't go there. That's not where he's at. He is not sentimental. He does not want Democrats to bog themselves down in an orgy of masturbatory vengeance-- that's my phrase, not his. He is also the president. He cares about precedent. (I'm told that in the internal deliberation about whether to release the OLC memos, Obama asked his interlocutors about precedent -- what future presidents like Mitt Romney (I don't know if he actually used Romney as an example) would do with the secrets of the Obama administration.) [emphasis mine]

I cannot speak for anyone other than myself, and I haven't been present at any high-level meetings amongst the Democratic party leadership, so perhaps my opinion has little bearing on anyone else's motivations, but my interest in investigating the torture policies of the last administration has nothing to do with vengeance, masturbatory or otherwise. It has everything to do with demonstrating to the country, the world, and to the current and future Presidents of the United States that nobody, but nobody, has the authority to disregard the basic human rights of its prisoners, to disregard its treaty obligations (which is what the Geneva Conventions are), or to disregard the Constitution. If Ambinder conflates the pursuit of justice for its own sake with "masturbatory vengeance," then he's a damn sight more cynical than is any good for him. From my perspective, investigating crimes committed by my country's leadership is the very definition of a "necessary battle."

Furthermore, if Obama is worried about the precedent created by releasing the OLC memos, then it would behoove him to avoid making piss-poor policy decisions that would violate the law and cause him to be investigated in the first place. If you do the right thing, Mr. President, then nobody will care to investigate you, and will discover no malfeasance if they do.

Ambinder thinks Obama is trying to side-step the investigation to move on with the rest of his agenda. In response, I quote the indispensible Glenn Greenwald:
Obama's ostensible motives here are no better. The claim that punishing Bush crimes will undermine his political interests is not only false (as Krugman definitively establishes today) but also corrupt. Democrats spent the last several years vehemently complaining about the "politicization of the Justice Department" under Alberto Gonzales. Yet so many of these same Democrats are now demanding that the Obama DOJ refrain from prosecuting Bush criminals based on purely political grounds: namely, that those prosecutions will interfere with Obama's political agenda.
As is so often the case these days, it is a worthwhile exercise to read Greenwald's whole post. He makes many excellent points. One that I cannot agree with heartily enough, and which bears being sung by a full gospel choir in the halls of the White House and the US Capital Building every morning, is this:

It makes no difference which party did the wrong thing, knew about it, went along with it, approved of it, hid it or ignored it. None. If an independent investigation implicates every single member of the Democratic leadership strolling around DC these days, then so be it. I no more wish to shield members of my own party from scrutiny than I wish to convict the opposition out of a sense of retribution. It appears that Speaker Pelosi is agitating for a truth commission, and for that I commend her. But the whole lot of them can go down if that's the price of discovering the truth.

In conclusion, I quote from Paul Krugman's column from yesterday:
[T]he fact is that officials in the Bush administration instituted torture as a policy, misled the nation into a war they wanted to fight and, probably, tortured people in the attempt to extract “confessions” that would justify that war. And during the march to war, most of the political and media establishment looked the other way.

It’s hard, then, not to be cynical when some of the people who should have spoken out against what was happening, but didn’t, now declare that we should forget the whole era — for the sake of the country, of course.

Sorry, but what we really should do for the sake of the country is have investigations both of torture and of the march to war. These investigations should, where appropriate, be followed by prosecutions — not out of vindictiveness, but because this is a nation of laws.

We need to do this for the sake of our future. For this isn’t about looking backward, it’s about looking forward — because it’s about reclaiming America’s soul.


  1. Let us assume for a moment that I accept the oft-offered premise from pro-torture people. I have a distinct set of two possible outcomes: torture and prevent loved ones from being harmed, or do not torture and condemn those loved ones.

    There are numerous immediately apparent problems with breaking it down this way, but let's just say for the nonce that this is in fact the one and only one possible scenario.

    The next question is not, "Would you do it?", the next question is, "Regardless of whether or not you would torture, should you be prosecuted and held accountable for that decision?"

    And the answer to this question is (IMO) obviously yes. A direct parallel can be drawn to other situations to illustrate why.

    A horrible serial rapist pedophile cannibal who is condemned to death is a match my daughter, and she has liver failure. Do I have the moral right to force that person to donate? No, I don't. If I break into prison, kidnap that serial rapist cannibal, and haul them off to a hospital and forced the surgery, I should be tried in a court of law.

    Period. The fact that they're a worthless ball of crud is not relevant, nor is the fact that they're going to die anyway.

    If you're not willing to face a jury, you've got no business making these sorts of decisions. If you don't think you can stand up in front of a court and say, "Yes I did this, and this is why, and I'd do it again even if you throw me in jail for it," and be willing to accept judgment of that jury... then odds are excellent that you shouldn't do it. You *KNOW* you shouldn't do it, or you wouldn't be asking for an exemption from a trial.

  2. Let's go surfin' now
    Everybody's learnin' how
    Do some waterboardin' with me!

  3. I'll say it again, the Geneva Conventions do not apply to the prisoners at GITMO and whatever the Obama administration is using for GITMO these days. The President's legal team filed a SCOTUS brief that takes that exact position.

    Even if the Conventions applied, which they don't, the treatment of detainees meets the requirements of the Geneva Conventions, according to a Pentagon review ordered by Mr. Obama.

    The Obama administration just isn't taking your side regarding GITMO and torture. I'm not sure they are taking my side. The Random Forces of Nature alone know what the Obama administration may do next, because he's broken so many firm promises on such a wide range of issues. Just ask Samatha Power how it feels to assert that you passionately believe in "his unshakable conscientiousness on human rights" nowdays.

    And Padraig, let the trials begin! Let's start with the top (Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, Ms. Pelosi, Mr. Reid, and everyone else in Congress who knew and approved of the actions of the CIA). Once we have held the political leadership to account for their alleged crimes, we can move on to the low level flunkies. Responsibility starts at the top, so Congress and the Administration (including the current Administration) should be held to account first.

  4. John, I am not a legal scholar, so I don't know if the Geneva Conventions technically apply to the prisoners at Gitmo. A brief filed by the President doesn't necessarily settle the question, so far as I can concerned. Even if the Geneva Conventions themselves do not apply, simple human decency does.

    And Padraig, I totally agree with everything you said.

  5. Serial Rapist Pedophile Cannibals for JusticeApril 26, 2009 at 8:54 AM

    I must object to padraig's insensitive characterization of my lifestyle.

  6. "If you do the right thing, Mr. President, then nobody will care to investigate you, and will discover no malfeasance if they do."

    I am uncertain that this is the case.

  7. There is always the possibility of being investigated, but if there is no impropriety I don't see how anything would be discovered.

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