Torture: The growing pressure for an investigation

Should President Obama authorize an investigation into the Bush administration’s use of “enhanced interrogation tactics” against terrorist suspects?

Barack Obama “has chaos on his hands,” said Andrew McCarthy in National Review Online, “and no one but himself to blame for it.” Last week the president tried to compromise his way past the question of what—if anything—to do about the Bush administration’s use of “enhanced interrogation tactics” against terrorist suspects. To appease the angry Left, Obama authorized the release of four more so-called torture memos from the Bush White House, while simultaneously assuring the Right that he had no desire to see prosecutions of those involved. But the memos only succeeded in stirring the blood lust of liberals who would love to see former Bush administration officials prosecuted for war crimes. The Right, meanwhile, rose to the defense of the Bush administration’s aggressive response to Islamic terrorism, with former Vice President Dick Cheney requesting the release of classified CIA memos that, he said, would prove that “enhanced interrogation” had produced critical information and foiled potentially deadly al Qaida plots. By releasing the memos, Obama “has stirred both sides to battle stations,” and some kind of investigation now seems inevitable.

That clearly wasn’t the president’s intention, said Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post. Obama has an extremely ambitious agenda to pursue, and the last thing he wants is a “long, wrenching legal drama” that would distract and bitterly divide the country like Watergate did. But waterboarding almost certainly qualifies as torture under both U.S. and international norms, and “the rule of law is one of our nation’s founding principles. Our laws against torture demand to be obeyed—and demand to be enforced.” As for the impact of prosecutions on Obama’s agenda, said Paul Krugman in The New York Times, Republicans already are fighting it every step of the way. More important, our nation has been badly stained by the Bush administration’s descent into barbarism, and only a full criminal investigation can reclaim “America’s soul.”

America’s soul might not survive that process, said The Washington Post in an editorial. Central to this nation’s greatness is our “sacred American tradition of peacefully transferring power from one party to another every four or eight years without cycles of revenge and criminal investigation.” If Barack Obama’s Justice Department pursues criminal charges against lawyers and officials from George W. Bush’s White House, what’s to stop the next Republican president from charging Obama with war crimes—say, for killing civilians in Pakistan through Predator missile strikes against suspected terrorist targets? If there really must be any official inquiry, said Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal, it should take the form of an independent, bipartisan, and unhurried commission rather than a special prosecutor or—shudder—congressional hearings led by “grandstanding” Democrats seeking their pound of flesh. “Almost anything would be better than that.”

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Besides, Democrats might regret where an investigation could lead, said Stephen Hayes in The Weekly Standard. For starters, there are the two 20-page CIA memos that Cheney is demanding be declassified. Should those documents prove that harsh interrogation of al Qaida terrorists prevented the deaths of thousands of Americans, Democrats may find themselves fighting public opinion as they conduct their show trials of these heroes’ actions in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. That’s the least of it, said Investor’s Business Daily. Once all the facts are on the table, we’ll see that some Democrats in Congress—House Speaker Nancy Pelosi chief among them—were fully briefed at the time on “the harsh techniques and never raised a peep.”

Is that supposed to be a reason not to investigate? said Glenn Greenwald in Salon.com. Those of us appalled by torture do not see Republicans as the sole villains in this sorry episode. If Democrats were complicit in war crimes, even just through their silence, then fine—let their cowardice be fully exposed. Not everyone, however, gave into the madness, said Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times. A thorough investigation by a bipartisan national commission would not just be about assigning blame—it would also let us celebrate those government and military officials and lawyers who insisted that “harsh interrogation” was a euphemism for torture, and refused to participate in it. Some officials may deserve history’s condemnation, but others sacrificed their careers “to defend American values,” and “they deserve medals.” Let’s name them, and prove that in our nation’s darkest hour, not everyone abandoned the principles that distinguish us from our enemies.

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