Friday, May 15, 2009


Are we getting to the point where we can talk seriously about the possibility that opposition to the Bush torture policies might not require support for a maximalist response with regard to prosecutions and transparency?

This morning, Philip Gourevitch was on the public radio show The Takeaway. Gourevitch's bona fides as a torture opponent ought to be unquestioned -- he collaborated with Errol Morris on the film and book Standard Operating Procedure (the book is now known as The Ballad of Abu Ghraib) -- and yet on the radio this morning he saw some sense in President Obama's decision to oppose release of additional photos. Citing the administration's war efforts in Afghanistan-Pakistan region, he echoed the White House:

... [President Obama]'s talking to military advisers, and he's saying, "Look, there is a possibility" -- and this seemed to have been agreed upon by everybody, including most reporters who were in Iraq at the time that the Abu Ghraib photographs came out -- that the release of such photographs would not change or add to our understanding that this was policy, that it was widespread, and that we now more and more and more about the torture, and yet it would have a sensational effect, and a possibly inflammatory effect, that would endanger people.

Gourevitch argues that torture photographs can actually obscure the truth -- we don't always know what we're seeing, and (this seems most important) we focus on the deeds we see rather than the decisions made by people we don't see:

... The only people who've ever been punished for Bush-era torture policies are the soldiers who appeared in and took the photographs at Abu Ghraib. Nobody else.... No commanders, nobody in any other theater, nobody in any other prison in the theater, nobody at any other stage. The photographs became the crime.... I think the notion that we should get so caught up right now in thinking that without these photographs we don't know what happened -- that's not true. Without these photographs or with these photographs, what we need to keep doing is chipping away towards knowing more and more and more and putting that picture together, which, frankly, the Obama administration has led us on, more than the press, more than any advocacy group, in the last few months.

Perhaps this is an unnecessary insult to advocacy groups, but it may be correct with regard to the past few months -- the documents that have been released are what's getting us toward the truth.


I'm struck by that, and struck by an e-mail Andrew Sullivan posted last night about the pursuit of torture prosecutions:

... Imagine what such prosecutions would entail: years of courtroom drama, depositions, lawsuits and counter-suits; the long parade of powerful and high ranking ex- and current members of government, including a goodly number of Democrats, being called on the carpet and having to testify against one another; the enormous rancor and bitterness. This would be Watergate on steroids. And imagine the shot in the arm this would give the zombified Limbaugh Right.

The prosecutions you are asking for would simply swallow the Obama presidency whole. It is the kind of energy draining, oxygen consuming drama that is the nightmare of every president. It would come to define his presidency in the same way the Hostage Crisis defined Carter's and there is zero chance he will opt for this.

President Obama is making a realistic, cold, clear-eyed cost-benefit analysis. This is the choice: Does he fix the economy, fix healthcare, get a handle on the two wars he's dealing with, or does he prosecute Bush era war crimes? He has chosen his agenda and is asking us to choose that to.

This echoes something posted yesterday by Joe Klein -- yes, I know, Joe Klein, but, really, he's been saying the right things about Bush and Cheney for a while now, and he says this as an opponent of Bush torture policies:

One of the problems with prosecuting the Bush miscreants, who will argue that they gave a good-faith interpretation of existing treaties and statutes, is that most non-ACLU lawyers believe they are likely to be acquitted--which would probably be seen as a validation of Bush torture policy, a disastrous unintended consequence.

But what about those photos? Isn't there some value in making people more aware of the practices? You could argue--with polling and focus groups to back you up--that most people would see this stuff as (a) tame compared to the things they see in movies and on tv and (b) called for, if the result is actionable intelligence about terrorist acts. (Indeed, the John Kerry campaign conducted such focus groups in 2004, with the result that the candidate never mentioned these outrages during the campaign, not even after the White House link was definitively reported in the Washington Post.)

... I don't think, given the vagaries of the law (i.e. the probability that you can argue that you interpreted the statutes in good faith with a different interpretation of torture than mine), that these will be successful prosecutions. I don't see what officially letting the Bush miscreants off the hook gets us.


I haven't posted a lot about the anti-transparency and anti-prosecution steps the Obama administration has taken. I know most of you vehemently disagree with what he's doing. I haven't felt like getting into it.

But sorry -- I share the concerns expressed by Gourevitch and Klein and Sullivan's correspondent. I'd love to live in a country where the public was as outraged by American waterboarding as it was by, say, the crimes of Nixon. I just don't see that we live in that country, and non-Fox, non-Rasmussen polls -- CNN, Pew -- confirm my fears. As I said last night, only one person above the level of enlisted person who's worked in the government has truly had feet held to the fire on this -- and that's Nancy Pelosi. I see no reason to have confidence in the ability of the Good Guys to ensure that punishment is meted out exclusively or even overwhelmingly to the Bad Guys. And I don't know what happens to the Obama agenda, which already seems to get watered down (from within and without) every time I look, if this becomes Priority #1.

(Sullivan link via Steve Benen.)

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