April 21, 2009
There has been much throwing about of brains on the matter of Barack Obama's ballyhooed "turnaround" on the torture prosecution issue. As usual, there is much less to the Beltway puffery than meets the eye -- although a key aspect of the burgeoning Torturegate affair can be found buried deep in the New York Times story on the subject.
So what has happened so far? After his groveling trip on Monday to soothe the hurt feelings of the tender little babies at the CIA -- who had been feeling unloved and uncherished since the tiniest ray of media light had shone briefly on their black arts -- Obama then tacked back to soothe the rumblings of his progressive base, parts of which had been disturbed by their hero's guarantee that no Bush torturer would ever face justice.
Of course, in this Obama is only following in the footsteps of his great Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, who very quickly killed off a number of important investigations into rampant criminality -- including a very credible case of treason -- on the part of the first Bush Administration and its various players, from the president on down. It seems to have become a primary function of the Democratic faction of America's bipartisan ruling elite to bury the crimes of the ruling clique whenever the more exuberant Republican faction lets them get too close to the surface. Iran-Contra, Iraqgate, BCCI, the "October Surprise" deal between candidates Reagan and Bush and Iran's extremist mullahs, etc. -- all were sunk several fathoms deep by Clinton, who of course shared a top fundraiser with George H.W. Bush in 1992, and has since gone on to be warmly welcomed as a "son" by the Bush family.
Anyway, Obama is simply trying to uphold this New Democrat tradition of ass-covering for the other side. But too much of the torture cat has slipped out of the bag to shove it back in quietly. And so on Tuesday, he sought to appease the growing pressure by saying that he was open to the possibility of maybe potentially putting together some kind of commission or something somewhere down the line that could look into whether or not some of these charges might need to be, er, looked into a little further -- although he was quick to add that he was "not suggesting" that such a thing should be done. You musn't get that idea! But he was, magnanimously, willing to say that he would not immediately put the imperial kibosh on the process if and when it ever cranked up.
He also signaled the beginning of a possible "compromise" that could tamp down the heat and get torture off the table, out of the news, and back into the shadowlands where it belongs -- and where it has been a much-used tool for our bipartisan leadership for many decades, as Bernard Chazelle usefully reminds us. And here's the beauty part: the compromise wouldn't involve anyone who actually carried out or ordered the torture! Thus the security organs and the top dogs in the Bush cabinet would remain untouched.
How to do it? Easy-peasy: grab two or three of the middlemen, the facilitators, and offer them up on the altar as sacrificial lambs. Obama said that he would not interfere if his attorney general decided to look into the possibility of perhaps taking some kind of action against the Bush Administration lawyers who wrote memos providing spurious legal "cover" for the CIA agents carrying out White House orders to torture. Memo-writers Jay Bybee, Steven Bradbury and John Yoo are being put in the frame to take the fall for the big boys and the covert operators.
Yes, that's right: Obama and his team are saying that they will not punish the torturers, and they will not punish the men who ordered the torture -- but they just might, possibly, consider punishing (in some way) those who transmitted the orders from the chief culprits to their frontline minions. The New York Times makes this clear in a passage deep in the story, where the White House tries to fudge over the apparent contradiction between Obama's new stance and his old stance which was enunciated over the weekend by his top aide, Rahm Emanuel:
On Sunday, Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said on the ABC News program "This Week" that "those who devised policy" also "should not be prosecuted." But administration officials said Monday that Mr. Emanuel had meant the officials who ordered the policies carried out, not the lawyers who provided the legal rationale.
Once again, Team Obama is underscoring the fact that they will not prosecute the torturers themselves, and they will not prosecute "the officials who ordered the policies carried out." They will only consider taking some unspecified action (which could be no more than disbarment) against the lawyers who wrote down the weasel-words to "justify" the tortures which Bush and Cheney specifically wanted and ordered.
Yes, of course such lawyers should face criminal prosecution, and serve hard time upon conviction. That's not the point here. The point is the astounding position that Obama is now taking. For how can it possibly be a punishable offense to write a memo condoning torture -- but NOT a punishable offense to order the memo to be written, to order the torture to be carried out, and to actually carry it out? Yet that is precisely what the constitutional lawyer in the Oval Office is suggesting: "We will not prosecute Al Capone for ordering a hit; we will not prosecute the hitman himself. But by golly, we just might think about looking into maybe prosecuting the guy who told the hitman what Al Capone wanted done!"
We've noted often here before that the ruling elite is certainly not averse to offering up a sacrifice now and then to get sticky issues off the front burner, and give the cynical appearance of the rule of law to their reckless and lawless depredations. And if the heat gets high enough, then a deal just might be struck: We'll give you ByBee, Yoo and Bradbury, but you let the worst perps -- the higher perps -- walk. (They might even go as far as throwing the hapless Alberto Gonzales into the stewpot, if the first few nuggets don't do the trick.)
The Bush gang has done this kind of thing before, when they made Scooter Libby walk the plank to save the hide of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney for their treasonous outing of a CIA operative. (Of course, they made sure that Scooter's landing was a comfy as possible.) Just as they didn't care how many people died and suffered as a result of their Terror War policies abroad and their corporate rapine at home, they certainly don't care if a few of their ex-servants bite the dust.
We may never get to that point, of course. No doubt Obama is hoping that his suggestion of possible future action on the side issue of the lawyers will be enough to quell the furor. Or, if not, then perhaps the usual blue-ribbon, "bipartisan" commission of trusted "elders" will obfuscate and bury the issue at last. But what is most remarkable about the situation is Obama's dogged insistence that he will not prosecute the actual authors and perpetrators of these base, foul crimes, no matter what. He is certainly showing an iron-clad consistency in protecting the elite lawlessness at the core of the imperial system.