Monday, July 13, 2009

Torture And The Political Cost of Justice

For months, we've been calling for Attorney General Eric Holder to rise above partisan political calculations and enforce our laws against torture. According to a story that broke in Newsweek this weekend, he may be preparing to finally do that. The article cites "four knowledgeable sources" who say that Holder is "leaning toward appointing a prosecutor to investigate the Bush administration's brutal interrogation practices."

Newsweek's article and all the subsequent reporting on the issue makes it clear that the White House is resistant to the idea. In a bit of doom and gloom, the article predicts:
"Such a decision would roil the country, would likely plunge Washington into a new round of partisan warfare, and could even imperil Obama's domestic priorities, including health care and energy reform."
Holder is portrayed as caught between his loyalty to Obama on one side and the simple demands of justice on the other--but leaning towards justice.

If the White House political gunners, like Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, manage to squash a torture investigation to help further their own political maneuverings, it will the biggest sellout yet of the Obama presidency. Certainly, big things are on the administration's agenda--healthcare reform, cap and trade environmental regulation, the Employee Free Choice Act, 2010 and 2012 races--but for them to claim the moral authority to just sweep torture under the rug would be the height of hubris.

But wait! There's already a sellout in what the Justice Department has in mind. According to WaPo's reporting,
"The sources said an inquiry would apply only to activities by interrogators, working in bad faith, that fell outside the 'four corners' of the legal memos."
"The actions of higher-level Bush policymakers are not under consideration for possible investigation."
The Justice Department broadcasting this message is like charging into battle already waving a white flag. It's like saying, "Don't worry, you who created the torture policies and knew exactly what you were doing! Your safe. We're just coming for the little people who made mistakes following your orders!'"

So if all they're going to do is look at some interrogators who went too far, why is the White House so scared its entire political agenda will be derailed? And who says it could be derailed anyway? Democrats have a filibuster proof majority in the Senate, a big margin in the house, a popular president, and a public that supports all their big legislative goals. Maybe they haven't noticed yet that they're in charge. Maybe they're afraid Republicans might yell at them.

Dear White House,
Grow a backbone. Our country can enforce laws AND pass new laws at the same time.
Better Than Machines

To end on a more redeeming note, here's a round of applause for Eric Holder for beginning, ever so slightly, to swim against the current. Hopefully he will let an investigation lead where it leads, as high up the chain as that may be.


Mason said...

My sense is that if the WH thought it could successfully prosecute at the highest levels for torture AND acheive success on their domestic policy agenda, they would do so. I agree with the WH (I'm assuming this is a political calculation)in that I dont think it's possible to do both at the same time. Due to the conservative Dem senators, the 60 vote filibuster proof majority is still weak, not due to the fault of the WH. Hopefully we will be able to pass a half-ass public option health care bill, maybe not - and that's with a fairly collegial atmosphere in Congress and a popular president, etc. Same thing with the energy bill and other things coming up. Simply telling the WH to grow a backbone on this (although that may certainly be appropriate at times) is too much wishful thinking. We can enforce laws and pass laws at the same time, it's just that the laws we would pass in that environment wouldn't be worth a damn. If a decision must be made between justice for torture or meaningful domestic policy reforms, I would have to go with the domestic policy since it has so much more material impact upon the people. I don't think it's simply political hubris to put torture prosecutions on hold in order to get millions of people without health insurance access to life saving healthcare or avoid environmental disaster. The fundamental problem problem is you can't successfully do everthing at the same time.
I look forward to a second term for Obama in which we can be happy with big policy reforms while torture and even the Iraq war decision-making is being prosecuted. BTW, whatever happened to that panel commission that was supposed to investigate how the Aministration used the intelligence to pursue the Iraq war? I'm happy that the AG is pushing the WH towards that direction, as it should be.

Dave said...

Mason, I see where you're coming from. If we did have to choose between people going to prison for torture or the myriad of legislative reforms that we need, I would take the legislative stuff. But accepting the idea that we do have to pick is such a damn pitiful defeat. As if torture wasn't bad enough in itself, now it's going to prevent us from enacting the policies we need?

Of course, most Republicans in Congress want to keep torture uninvestigated and they want to prevent a public-option healthcare plan, common-sense environmental regulation, a "green" jobs program, Employee Free Choice, etc. They shouldn't--and I think they don't--have the power to do either of the two. But who are they to say that we must pick one or the other? What kind of silly negotiation is that? On one side they stand against the law and on the other side against the will of the people, and they're "negotiating" from a weak position in Congress.

But as I've said before, this isn't a political decision anyway. The Attorney General must enforce the law. He's a political appointee, but he's supposed to be independent of the political operations of the White House. I think Eric Holder won't be able to live with not acting on this. And his decision is going to be easier as more information about torture trickles out to the public in the comings months. BTW, look for the CIA inspector general's report on interrogation techniques that is supposed to be released on August 31st.