Why Won’t Obama Pursue Bush Administration Abuses?

by Rick Rockwell

Torture, it seems, is reprehensible, but not horrible enough for what is billed as the world’s greatest democracy to pursue the torturers and punish them.

At least for the time being, boiled down to its basics, that’s the message that issues from the new Obama administration. Those who want justice for those in the Bush administration who used the excuse of the 9/11 attacks to hijack the Constitution will just have to wait for the usually spineless and disorganized Democrats in Congress to lead the charge. And don’t look at Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) for answers.

No, instead, as noted here before, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) has been rumbling about using his committee or forming a special committee to look at Bush administration abuses. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) floated the idea of a truth and reconciliation committee (much like what South Africa used in an attempt to cleanse itself of the apartheid era) during a speech at Georgetown University on Feb. 9. When that came up at President Barack Obama’s first press conference, the new president brushed it aside with his usual answers about not wanting to dwell on the past. Like many Democrats (and our own commentator Jeff Siegel) the new president would just as soon close the book firmly on the era of George W. Bush and forget about it. Except, of course, when it is a useful political foil when selling the Obama version of economic stimulus and bank bailout. Rightly, the economic crisis is the president’s top priority.

As predicted in these columns, Obama is treading a careful and cautious path when it comes to the thorny problem of dealing with the obvious wrongs of the Bush administration, which bent the Constitution to its will and ignored international treaties on human rights at its whim. Take Leon Panetta’s confirmation hearings for the post as CIA director for example. Panetta clearly noted the policies of the past were wrong. However, he noted, he didn’t think intelligence officers and officials should be punished because they were just following orders.

Also, as predicted here, the Obama administration doesn’t seem to want to use its political capital on clearing up the transgressions of the past administration. That is clearly being left to Congress. Some of the reasoning behind this may also lie with a new president who doesn’t want to hamstring his own wartime powers later down the line. That is likely another reason that the Obama administration is following the example of the Bush administration and is attempting to block legal inquiries into the policy of extraordinary rendition by calling details of the practice a state secret.

But in this thinking lies the very reason why these past crimes must be pursued. The Bush administration not only weakened the rule of law in this country during its time in office but it set a very bad international example for how democracies behave in a crisis. So when leaders in Russia, or Venezuela, or China, or elsewhere hear the U.S. State Department barking about undemocratic policies what do you think is their reaction after Bush’s version of the U.S. torture state?

If the U.S. does not follow a policy like Leahy has spelled out, how are we to retake our standing in the world to again lecture on democratic principles? Are we not setting precedent for another Bush to follow later and repeat, if not expand, on these power abuses of the executive branch?
The answer from Republicans and other conservatives is clear. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) called Leahy's idea a political scheme "to unjustly malign former Bush administration officials."

However, one has to question why more of the public and the media do not refute that stance with the views of some like film-maker Alex Gibney whose treatise on the Bush torture regime Taxi to the Dark Side should be required viewing. Gibney argues that this country in fighting World War II, the Korean War and the Cold War did not stoop to torture. Are Osama bin-Laden’s small band of terrorists so much worse than those other foes that the U.S. had to throw away its Constitution in fighting them?

Finally, our soon-to-be new CIA director and others in the Obama administration should remember that excuse about not prosecuting those who were only following orders. Why is it that excuse didn’t work for the Nazis at Nuremberg but it seems fine now to cover over the abuses of the Bush administration at Guantanamo and elsewhere?

(For more on the difficulties of journalists and documentarians attempting to tell the story of the Bush torture policies, please see: "Bush, PBS & Torturing Democracy.")

(Political graphic from BloodForOil.org, which offers its graphics for free, using a Creative Commons License.)

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