Friday, April 17, 2009

The torture memos

The Obama administration yesterday released the memos from the Bush administration's Office of Legal Counsel justifying torture.

There is good news and bad news in this development. First, the good news is that Obama did the right thing in releasing the memos with minimal redactions. This is virtually unprecedented in American history. I'm sure that it never occurred to the Bush people that their successor would release these memos. In that respect, Obama is already breaking ground. Makes me proud that I voted for him and campaigned for him.

The bad news is that Obama made it clear that he does not intend to pursue prosecutions of the people who conducted the torture, at least not those who acted in "good faith." Many people on the left strongly disagree with this. Glenn Greenwald wrote an excellent piece for Salon, on the one hand praising Obama for releasing the memos, and on the other hand criticizing him for not pursuing prosecutions. I disagree with Greenwald on one point. He writes that
there wasn't much political gain for Obama in releasing these documents.
I understand why he writes that; the right is strongly critical of him, while the left is just thankful that he did the right thing. I think it does benefit Obama somewhat in the short term, because it shores up his support from liberals. Not that he needed it, but he won't be criticized as much as he would have been if he had stonewalled. In the long term, however, I think Obama benefits substantially, because he has taken a good solid step towards rewarding Americans' faith in their government's ability to acknowledge its errors. Restoring even a tiny bit of faith in democracy is a Herculean task, and for that Obama deserves praise as well.

Andrew Sullivan has been all over this, as he has for years. He has done his adopted country a great service by relentlessly hammering home how despicable the Bush administration was.
Looked at from a distance, the Bush administration wanted to do two things at once: to declare to the world that freedom is on the march, and human rights are coming to the world with American help, while simultaneously declaring to captives that the US has no interest in the law, human rights, accountability, transparency or humanity. They wanted to give hope to all the oppressed of the planet, while surgically banishing all hope from the prisoners they captured and tortured. And the only way they could pull this off is by the total secrecy they constructed and defended. So we had a public government respectful of the rule of law, and a secret government whose main goal was persuading terror suspects that there was no rule of law at all. It is hard to convey just how dangerous this was and is.
What is key to remember at this juncture is that the release of these memos is the beginning, not the end, of the process of restoring the rule of law. I disagree with Obama's decision not to pursue prosecutions of the agents who engaged in torture, but I don't condemn him for it. First, it's not his job; the Presient does not make decisions about who to prosecute, although he clearly has influence. I usually agree with him on reaching out to people who disagree with him. This time, I think he did so not just out of concern for maintaining political peace. He is technically the boss of everyone at the CIA, and those are people you really don't want to piss off. On the other hand, you have to be prepared to piss them off; that's part of the job of the President.

But it's also clear that Obama is not foreclosing all options to hold people accountable. In a sense, I am glad that he is not proposing prosecutions for people who tortured, because I am not sure if that is the best way to hold people accountable for these atrocities. It may or may not be a good idea; I'm not a lawyer, so I don't know. But there are a number of avenues available to us, many outside the executive branch. Nature abhors a vacuum, as does a scandal. Ironically, by foreclosing the option of prosecution, Obama opens the door to many other possible solutions. Congress may appoint a special prosecutor; at the very least, I expect hearings to be held.

One great thing about Obama that I am appreciating more and more is that he has a very deep and abiding faith in both the American people and democracy. In both of these, he is the exact opposite of Bush and Cheney, who had so little faith in either. Obama cannot control what will happen now that these memos have been released, but he does not want to. He has given the American people permission to pass judgment, argue, and decide what should be done.

The worst news that we heard today is that what so many suspected was true; the Bush administration systematically authorized torture. The best news was that we heard about it from the President of the United States.

What was done in secret will be changed by what will be done in the open.

The American people are Obama's great secret weapon.

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