As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Shoe Drops - Obama Addresses Torture and War Crimes

Credit Will Bunch for stepping up and forcing a conversation on the Torture Regime and whether they will be held accountable for their crimes.

Tonight I had an opportunity to ask Barack Obama a question that is on the minds of many Americans, yet rarely rises to the surface in the great ruckus of the 2008 presidential race -- and that is whether an Obama administration would seek to prosecute officials of a former Bush administration on the revelations that they greenlighted torture, or for other potential crimes that took place in the White House.

Here's his answer, in its entirety:

"What I would want to do is to have my Justice Department and my Attorney General immediately review the information that's already there and to find out are there inquiries that need to be pursued. I can't prejudge that because we don't have access to all the material right now. I think that you are right, if crimes have been committed, they should be investigated. You're also right that 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.

So this is an area where I would want to exercise judgment -- I would want to find out directly from my Attorney General -- having pursued, having looked at what's out there right now -- are there possibilities of genuine crimes as opposed to really bad policies. And I think it's important-- one of the things we've got to figure out in our political culture generally is distinguishing betyween really dumb policies and policies that rise to the level of criminal activity. You know, I often get questions about impeachment at town hall meetings and I've said that is not something I think would be fruitful to pursue because I think that impeachment is something that should be reserved for exceptional circumstances. Now, if I found out that there were high officials who knowingly, consciously broke existing laws, engaged in coverups of those crimes with knowledge forefront, then I think a basic principle of our Constitution is nobody above the law -- and I think that's roughly how I would look at it."

Well, this is a politician's answer, but there are institutional constraints that he recognizes. It's true that the Republicans would throw the Mother of All Hissy Fits if they even got a whiff that a Democratic Attorney General was investigating the Bush Administration. There aren't the Howard Bakers of yore to understand the concept of country above party and the rule of law above everything else. So they'll scream bloody murder (if Bush doesn't pardon himself on the way out the door) and the media will want to just move on and cover the exciting 2012 election, besides. Hopefully Obama will recognize that and damn the supposed "consequences" of upholding the law.

There are a lot of hedges and what-ifs and easy outs for Obama in this answer. But the fact that he understands this is a problem, the fact that he's willing to engage in an immediate review, is at least something. Ultimately it'll be up to us to push it further. And there's no doubt that it's vital; otherwise the same cast of characters will show up in Republican Administrations down the road and run it as a criminal enterprise. Nixon was forced to resign but he was crucially not discredited, not made to answer for his actions, and so the same figures recycled back into later Presidencies. The same with Reagan and Iran-Contra.

There's enough information out there already to prosecute, if you ask me. The White House has admitted waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the President has admitted approving his Principals to direct that interrogation, and the United States has successfully prosecuted, in U.S. v. Lee and a number of other cases, the commission of waterboarding to obtain evidence and induce confession. So if Obama and his AG, who'd have to made of strong stuff to weather Republican attacks (Edwards?), are serious about pursuing justice they'd simply have to prosecute, on the issue of torture and a host of others.

Ultimately, this answer is insufficient, but you have to start somewhere. Watergate, the only -gate worth its name, started with an internal review. I'd rather Obama be more forceful but he has an election to win, I guess. Still, prosecutorial discretion does not require that people "knowingly" and "consciously" break the law in order to press charges, simply that they break the law. If no man is above that law, as Obama says, he must apply the standard evenly. And he shouldn't look to the Yoo memos as exculpatory, either, they were clearly written as after-the-fact justifications.

The long road begins with a single step, and we have to make both of these Democratic standard-bearers do the right thing. Next up is making Charlie Gibson ask the question in the debate on Wednesday in front of a very large audience in Philadelphia and on television. Will Bunch is a friend of the blogs and can be counted on to understand the difference between substance and fluff (and the blogosphere's insistence on the importance of this subject generated the question, so give yourselves a round of applause). Gibson read on his own broadcast the allegations against the Administration of choreographing and authorizing torture inside the White House. He should be able to discern the difference too. Let him know how you'd feel about that.

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