Obama Waffles on Torture Prosecution
If you’re one of the thousands of Americans who have gone to Barack Obama’s change.gov Web site demanding that the President-elect hold Bush administration officials accountable for torture and other law violations, you’re likely to be disappointed.
Obama is signaling that he will repudiate those illegal practices but is not likely to turn his Justice Department loose on those who perpetrated the crimes over the past eight years. At least, that is the impression Obama has been giving in interviews – and it’s what I was told last week by several high-ranking members of his transition team.
Obama is unlikely to devote much time scrutinizing the actions of individual officials, said the aides, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Instead, they said Obama will encourage Congress to undertake fact-finding regarding torture and other abuses.
The new President will limit his actions to reviewing and possibly reversing some of Bush’s executive orders and withdrawing some legal opinions that asserted broad presidential powers, the aides said.
Obama gave the clearest indication of his intentions Sunday in an interview on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulus,” saying that criminal prosecution should be reserved for someone who “has blatantly broken the law.”
Obama added, however, he held “a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backward.”
During the campaign, Obama expressed similar views, although with a somewhat different emphasis.
Last April, for instance, Obama said he would have his “Attorney General immediately review the information that's already there and to find out are there inquiries that need to be pursued” with a view toward bringing criminal charges, but he added:
“I would not want my first term consumed by what was perceived on the part of Republicans as a partisan witch hunt because I think we've got too many problems we've got to solve.”
Since his election on Nov. 4, Obama has been urged by rank-and-file Democrats to enforce criminal laws as they apply to illegal acts by President George W. Bush and his administration. Meanwhile, Bush supporters and Establishment voices have demanded that Obama refrain from any serious investigation of issues like torture and warrantless wiretaps.
Pressure to Ignore
Last week, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page issued a stern warning to Obama’s choices to lead the intelligence community – Leon Panetta as CIA director and retired Admiral Dennis Blair as Director of National Intelligence – that they must resist “the left-wing crusade to purge their agencies of anyone who had anything to do with ‘torture.’”
Moreover, the Journal criticized some Democratic congressional leaders for advocating a “Truth Commission” to ascertain facts about abuses over the past eight years. The editorial contended that these leaders already knew the facts because they had been consulted as events unfolded.
“Beginning in 2002, Nancy Pelosi and other key Democrats (as well as Republicans) on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees were thoroughly, and repeatedly, briefed on the CIA's covert anti-terror interrogation programs,” the Journal editorial said.
“They did nothing to stop such activities, when they weren't fully sanctioning them,” the Journal said. “According to our sources and media reports we've corroborated, the classified briefings began in the spring of 2002 and dealt with the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, a high-value al Qaeda operative captured in Pakistan.
“In succeeding months and years, more than 30 congressional sessions were specifically devoted to the interrogation program and its methods, including waterboarding and other aggressive techniques designed to squeeze intelligence out of hardened detainees like Zubaydah.”
Vice President Dick Cheney has made similar claims in “exit interviews” over the past month. For instance, he claimed that congressional leaders of both parties privately went along with the administration’s actions, such as the warrantless wiretaps.
“We brought what I describe as the ‘Big 9’ – not only the Intel [Committee] people, but also the Speaker, the Majority and Minority Leaders of the House and Senate, and brought them into the Situation Room in the basement of the White House,” Cheney said on Fox News.
“I presided over the meeting. We briefed them on the program and what we'd achieved and how it worked, and asked them, should we continue the program. They were unanimous, Republican and Democrat alike, all agreed, absolutely essential to continue the program.”
Cheney’s description of a high-level bipartisan consensus on a program that ignored the clear legal requirements of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act suggests that the threats to American liberties go deeper than simply the aggressive actions by the Bush administration.
It would mean that – among others – House Speaker Pelosi, who served as both the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and as House Minority Leader, would have sat in on Cheney’s White House briefings.
Carrying Bush’s Water
However, Pelosi and other senior Democrats have not spelled out precisely how they reacted in these highly classified briefings. The Bush administration may want to spread the responsibility as widely as possible – and the Wall Street Journal has carried Bush’s water in the past.
For instance, in July 2003, at the request of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz contacted the editorial department at the Wall Street Journal to leak the highly-classified National Intelligence Estimate about Iraq’s alleged attempts to acquire yellowcake uranium from Niger as a way of undermining former Ambassador Joseph Wilson who had accused the Bush administration of lying about the uranium issue in order to win support for the Iraq War.
"The Vice President thought we should still try and get the [NIE] out,” Libby testified before a federal grand jury about his role in leaking the identity of Wilson’s wife, undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame. “And so he asked me to talk to the Wall Street Journal. I don't have as good a relationship with the Wall Street Journal as Secretary Wolfowitz did, and so we talked to Secretary Wolfowitz about trying to get that point across [to the Journal], and he undertook to do so."
Wolfowitz faxed the Wall Street Journal a set of "talking points" about Wilson that the newspaper's editors could use to discredit Wilson in print, according to Libby's testimony. Wolfowitz also gave the newspaper a portion of the NIE. The Journal printed Wolfowitz's talking points verbatim in a July 17, 2003, editorial, which misled its readers about the source of the information.
According to the editorial, "Yellowcake Remix," the Journal said the data the newspaper received about Iraq's interest in uranium "does not come from the White House" – although that is where it originated, albeit laundered through Wolfowitz at the Pentagon.
Despite the warnings from the Journal and other Establishment voices, congressional Democrats appear to be pressing forward for a full-scale investigation. House judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers has proposed legislation to create a blue-ribbon panel of outside experts to probe the “broad range” of policies pursued by the Bush administration “under claims of unreviewable war powers.”
Much of what the public knows so far about the Bush administration’s torture policies is due to the American Civil Liberties Union’s Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the government. Since 2004, the organization has obtained more than 100,000 pages of documents that show the White House signed off on and authorized torture against detainees at Guantanamo Bay and at prisons in Iraq.
All of the documents are published on the ACLU’s Web site but several hundred of the most explosive records were republished in the book Administration of Torture along with hard-hitting commentary by the ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer, who heads the group’s National Security Project, and Amrit Singh, a staff attorney with the organization.
In the book, the authors use the documents to show that the torture policies enacted by the White House began on Jan. 25, 2002, when then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales advised Bush in a memo to deny al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners protections under the Geneva Conventions.
Gonzales’s memo said that by denying Geneva Conventions protections to al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners it “substantially reduces the threat of domestic criminal prosecution under the War Crimes Act” and “provide a solid defense to any future prosecution.”
Two weeks later, Bush signed an action memorandum dated Feb. 7, 2002, which denied baseline protections to al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners under the Third Geneva Convention. That memo, according to a recent report issued by the Senate Armed Services Committee, opened the door to “considering aggressive techniques,” which were then developed with the complicity of then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Bush’s National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Cheney, and other senior officials.
“While the President’s order stated that, as ‘a matter of policy, the United States Armed Forces shall continue to treat detainees humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of the Geneva Conventions,’ the decision to replace well established military doctrine, i.e., legal compliance with the Geneva Conventions, with a policy subject to interpretation, impacted the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody,” the committee’s report said.
Jason Leopold has launched his own Web site, The Public Record, at www.pubrecord.org.
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