Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Obama and the Establishment press, Week 14

The disastrous state of our national press has been on clear display over the issue of prosecuting torturers. In this case, most of them are nominally in favor of Obama's position, up to a point. The favorite Beltway Village position right now seems to be: Obama was right to change the torture policy and right to release the torture memos and right as well on opposing prosecution of lower-level torturers. But the Village is almost frantically insistant that none of the torturers be prosecuted.

To me the most appalling thing about this is how little the Villagers seem to care that torture is a serious crime with laws and treaties banning it and severely restricting the options of government in choosing whether or not to prosecute it. There also seems to be an astonishing acceptance that the President has the authority to make purely political decisions on prosecuting federal criminals. The Attorney General is supposed to make independent decisions based on the law when it comes to prosecution.

Direct political intervention in prosecutions of the kind that became apparently very common during the Cheney-Bush years is illegal as well as major-league inappropriate. I actually think it is very inappropriate of Obama to be saying publicly that he opposes prosecuting the hands-on torturers. That is really not his decision to make. If I understand the Torture Convention treaty correctly, Obama doesn't even have the legal option to pardon torture perpetrators prior to their being tried. I believe he would have the authority to pardon or commute the sentences of those convicted, but not before they are charged and tried.

You have to look and listen very hard to hear any of that among our Big Pundits' chatter.

The Washington Post on Sunday 04/26/09 featured several opinion piece relating to torture. David Broder, the Dean Of All The Pundits, demands that the rule of law and specifically the laws against torture be ignored so that we can Stop Scapegoating 04/26/09. You need to read the whole piece to get the full feeling of how indignant the Dean is at the notion that torture perpetrators might be investigated and tried for their very serious crimes. It's become fashionable among the Villagers to talk about how glad they are that Obama ended torture as a matter of policy, normally with little or no analysis of their own support of or indifference to the torture policy of the Cheney-Bush administration. Here's the Dean's version:

The memos on torture represented a deliberate, and internally well-debated, policy decision, made in the proper places - the White House, the intelligence agencies and the Justice Department - by the proper officials.

One administration later, a different group of individuals occupying the same offices has - thankfully - made the opposite decision. Do they now go back and investigate or indict their predecessors?

That way, inevitably, lies endless political warfare. It would set the precedent for turning all future policy disagreements into political or criminal vendettas. That way lies untold bitterness - and injustice.
Justice to the victims of torture doesn't seem to enter David Broder's thoroughly Establishment mind. The notion that justice - and the practical consideration of American soldiers who become prisoners of war in the future - requires enforcing the law against torture, the Dean airily dismisses, referring to the wicked law-and-order types who want a real investigation and prosecutions:

Their argument is that without identifying and punishing the perpetrators, there can be no accountability -- and therefore no deterrent lesson for future administrations. It is a plausible-sounding rationale, but it cloaks an unworthy desire for vengeance. [my emphasis]
If the Dean has ever declared the prosecution of an African-American for dealing crack to be nothing more than "an unworthy desire for vengeance", I'll give him credit for consistency if someone points that column out to me. But we shouldn't miss what the Dean Of All The Pundits is advocating here: straight-up class and political justice, and a rejection of the rule of law.

Glenn Greenwald gives his own take on Broder's pro-torturer column in David Broder and media culpability for Bush crimes Salon 04/26/09. He writes (emphasis in bold is Glenn's):

To justify the absolute immunity he wants for government lawbreakers, Broder describes the Bush era as "one of the darkest chapters of American history, when certain terrorist suspects were whisked off to secret prisons and subjected to waterboarding and other forms of painful coercion in hopes of extracting information about threats to the United States." But that's easy to say now that the Bush presidency is over and the evidence of its criminality so undeniable. But Broder never said any such thing while it was all taking place, when it mattered. In fact, he did the opposite: he mocked those who tried to sound the alarm about how radical and "dark" the Bush presidency was and repeatedly defended what Bush officials were doing as perfectly normal, unalarming and well within the bounds of mainstream and legitimate policy.
Regular Post columnist Ruth Marcus (The Easy Part Is Over) writing about Obama's challenges in his second 100 days manages to ignore the torture issue altogether. Which is probably just as well, seeing that she actually seems to be proud of being called a "torture enabler", as she bragged in her PBS Newshour appearance a couple of weeks ago.

Walter Pincus, a Post writer who still practices actual journalism, writes that The CIA Will Pay the Price. Pincus writes about his own training as an Army interrogator during the Korean War. And he actually points out that a real legal investigation may well end up in prosecutions for lower-level CIA torturers, despite Obama's advocacy of giving them a pass on torture:

President Obama went out of his way last week to reassure CIA personnel that he opposes prosecution of agency officers who carried out the techniques within the four corners of the legal opinions. But Congress and human rights groups are pushing for investigations that will inevitably shine the spotlight on CIA leaders and operatives who ran the programs, along with the White House and Justice Department officials who authorized them.
Former CIA officer Michael Scheuer was a high-profile critic of the Bush administration's "war on terror". He also played a key role in designing the original "rendition" program under the Clinton administration, which at least had nominal safeguards against torture. But Scheuer himself has been an advocate of torture. And he continues that advocacy in his op-ed, Say It's Osama. What If He Won't Talk? He uses the tired and juvenile ticking-time-bomb scenario, juiced up this time with Osama bin Laden as a prisoner. The best answer to the question in the title of his op-ed would be that we will do what the United Nations at the insistence of the United States did with the leading German and Japanese war criminals, who did far, far more damage in the world than Osama bin Laden has, and try him in a scrupulously fair proceeding. That's the right thing to do, and it's the legally-required thing to do. In this passage, you can see that Scheuer's political perspective is that of a sneering conservative who doesn't give a [Cheney] about the laws against torture or the rule of law:

Now, in a single week, President Obama has eliminated two-thirds of that successful-but-not-sufficient national defense troika because his personal ideology -- a fair gist of which is "If the world likes us more we are more secure" -- cannot tolerate harsh interrogation techniques, torture or coercive interviews, call them what you will. Surprisingly, Obama now stands alongside Bush as a genuine American Jacobin, both of them seeing the world as they want it to be, not as it is. Whereas Bush saw a world of Muslims yearning to betray their God for Western secularism, Obama gazes upon a globe that he regards as largely carnivore-free and believes that remaining threats can be defused by semantic warfare; just stop saying "War on Terror" and give talks in Turkey and on al-Arabiyah television, for example.
Of course, the idea that Obama is simultaneously a "Jacobin" and someone who sees the world as "largely carnivore-free" - and presumably by "carnivore" he means potentially dangerous enemies - is not only self-contradictory. It's also thoroughly dishonest. Scheuer's op-ed is really a pretty trashy piece overall.

Mark Danner, who has done some of the most important journalistic work on the Iraq War and the torture policy, writes in If Everyone Knew, Who's to Blame? about the implications of the fact that it took five years after the Abu Ghuraib to stop the torture program. But Danner still partially reflects the Village consensus on prosecution:

This is why torture is at its heart a political scandal and why its resolution lies in destroying the thing done, not the people who did it. It is this idea of torture that must be destroyed: torture as a badge worn proudly to prove oneself willing to "do anything" to protect the country. That leads to the second paradox of torture: Even after all we know, the political task at hand - the first task, without which none of the others, including prosecutions, can follow - remains one of full and patient and relentless revelation of what was done and what it cost the country, authoritative revelation undertaken by respected people of both parties whose words will be heard and believed. [my emphasis]
In his op-ed, Danner does step outside permissible Village thought at this moment and specifically advocates prosecuting torture criminals, though you have to read to the end of the piece for that to be clear: "Those who break the law should be punished. This includes those who torture no less than those who kill. "

My problems with Danner's argument are as follows. I actually agree with the main point he seems to be making, which is that looking at the ugly reality that the torture program went on for years and many Republicans and even some Democrats now actually defend torture, and that Villagers like Dean Broder who claim to oppose it see it as a legitimate policy option. And that even though it's seriously, big-time criminal; Danner is arguing that the whole idea of torture as a viable option needs to be discredited as much as it can be.

But his argument as he makes it in this op-ed is a variation on the line crooked politicians use when they realize that bad acts have been publicly exposed: everybody does it. This is an argument pitched to liberals, saying look, the Democrats in Congress didn't do all they could to stop it. And the public knew that torture was going on as well and supported it. So even though we should prosecute the actual perpetrators, it still amounts to a kind of scapegoating.

The public polling on torture during the last administration showed that most people were opposed to torture, so Danner can be faulted for his fact-checking on that one. And current polls that don't specify individual techniques or use the phrase "enhanced interrogation" instead of "torture" aren't measuing public opinion accurately.

But his notion that because we as citizens and the Congress as our elected representatives failed to stop this sooner is not at all an argument for letting the actual perpetrators off the hook for breaking the law, as others would be eager to argue. The Germans have a saying that seems to command a large consensus there, which is used particularly in reference to war crimes and the Holocaust: there is no such thing as collective guilt, but there is collective responsibility.

Danner does sound like his not completely opposed to the idea of prosecutions in this one sentence: "If justice is allowed to follow its course, then some prosecutions will eventually come, but they alone cannot lead us back to political health." But he also literally argues that there are too many perpetrators to prosecute. So the argument is a bit muddled.

And while agreeing with the point that the notion of torture as a good policy option now needs to be discredited anew, that process of doing so needs to start with the fact that torture is as illegal as anything can be under both American and international law. And most Americans do not see torture as a viable policy option, despite the widespread practical acceptance of it among the Village Idiots. No, it's not the idea of torture that needs to be destroyed. It's the practice of torture that needs to be eliminated. That's why we have laws against them and why perpetrators of torture need to be prosecuted for their crimes.

None of these pieces including Danner's deal with the irresponsible way the Establishment press handles the torture issue and has handled it for the past nearly eight years: the press eagerly jumped into a discussion of whether torture was legal immediately after the 9/11 attacks. And there own fecklessness and irresponsibility in dealing with the issue is undoutedly the reaons so many of the Big Pundits are so dead set against prosecuting torturers.

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