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The Motivation for Blocking Investigations Into Bush Lawbreaking

by Glenn Greenwald

Harper's Scott Horton yesterday interviewed Jane Mayer about her new book, The Dark Side. The first question he asked was about the Bush administration's fear that they would be criminally prosecuted for implementing what the International Red Cross had categorically described as "torture."

Mayer responded "that inside the White House there [had] been growing fear of criminal prosecution, particularly after the Supreme Court ruled in the Hamdan case that the Geneva Conventions applied to the treatment of the detainees," and that it was this fear that led the White House to demand (and, of course, receive) immunity for past interrogation crimes as part of the Military Commissions Act of 2006. But Mayer noted one important political impediment to holding Bush officials accountable for their illegal torture program:

An additional complicating factor is that key members of Congress sanctioned this program, so many of those who might ordinarily be counted on to lead the charge are themselves compromised.

As we witness not just Republicans, but also Democrats in Congress, acting repeatedly to immunize executive branch lawbreaking and to obstruct investigations, it's vital to keep that fact in mind. With regard to illegal Bush programs of torture and eavesdropping, key Congressional Democrats were contemporaneously briefed on what the administration was doing (albeit, in fairness, often in unspecific ways). The fact that they did nothing to stop that illegality, and often explicitly approved of it, obviously incentivizes them to block any investigations or judicial proceedings into those illegal programs.

In December of last year, The Washington Post revealed:

Four members of Congress met in secret for a first look at a unique CIA program designed to wring vital information from reticent terrorism suspects in U.S. custody. For more than an hour, the bipartisan group, which included current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), was given a virtual tour of the CIA's overseas detention sites and the harsh techniques interrogators had devised to try to make their prisoners talk.

Among the techniques described, said two officials present, was waterboarding, a practice that years later would be condemned as torture by Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill. But on that day, no objections were raised. Instead, at least two lawmakers in the room asked the CIA to push harder, two U.S. officials said.

The article noted that other Democratic members who received briefings on the CIA's interrogation program included Jay Rockefeller and Jane Harman. While Harman sent a letter to the CIA asking questions about the legality of the program, none ever took any steps to stop or even restrict the interrogation program in any way.

Identically, numerous key Democrats in Congress -- including Rockefeller and Harman -- were told that Bush had ordered the NSA to spy on American without warrants and outside of FISA. None of them did anything to stop it. In fact, while Rockefeller wrote a sad, hostage-like, handwritten letter to Dick Cheney in 2003 (which he sent to nobody else) -- assuring Cheney that he would keep the letter locked away "to ensure that I have a record of this communication" -- Harman was a vocal supporter of the illegal NSA program. Here's what she told Time in January, 2006 in the wake of the NYT article revealing the NSA program:

Some key Democrats even defend it. Says California's Jane Harman, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee: "I believe the program is essential to U.S. national security and that its disclosure has damaged critical intelligence capabilities."

Harman then went on Fox News and pronounced that the NSA program was "legal and necessary" and proudly said: "I support the program." Even worse, in February, 2006, Harman went on "Meet the Press" and strongly suggested that the New York Times should be criminally prosecuted for having reported on the illegal program. And indeed, in 2004, Harman demanded that the NYT's Eric Lichtblau not write about the NSA program. As Lichtblau wrote in his recent book about a 2004 conversation with Harman:

"You should not be talking about that here," she scolded me in a whisper. "They don't even know about that," she said, gesturing to her aides, who were now looking on at the conversation with obvious befuddlement. "The Times did the right thing by not publishing that story," she continued. I wanted to understand her position. What intelligence capabilities would be lost by informing the public about something the terrorists already knew -- namely, that the government was listening to them? I asked her. Harman wouldn't bite. "This is a valuable program, and it would be compromised,' she said. I tried to get into some of the details of the program and get a better understanding of why the administration asserted that it couldn't be operated within the confines of the courts. Harman wouldn't go there either. "This is a valuable program," she repeated.

In light of this sordid history of active complicity, is it really any wonder that these leading Democrats are desperate to quash any investigations or judicial adjudications of Bush administration actions that they knew about and did nothing to stop, in some cases even actively supporting?

Yesterday, I was on Warren Olney's To the Point discussing the FISA controversy. The guest interviewed immediately before me was Jane Harman (and before her was Lichtblau). Harman was vigorously spouting every false talking point to defend her vote in favor of telecom immunity and the new FISA law, including the painfully absurd claim that the new FISA law actually "makes the law stronger than the original law. It's a better law." She kept saying things like this to justify her support for terminating the lawsuits arising out of the illegal NSA program:

OLNEY: But back to the question, though, of the phone companies. Why was it that one company, Qwest, seemed to think that there were serious questions to be raised about this and the others didn't? Can you tell us that?

HARMAN: Well, I respect what Qwest did. Qwest said that the strict letter of FISA isn't being followed, as I understand it. That was some very careful lawyering.

The other telecoms that complied with requests believed -- so they say -- that they were complying with valid requests from the Government. And remember that when this happened, it was shortly after 9/11 and so forth --

OLNEY: Yeah, but if they didn't, and privacy was violated, shouldn't they be held to account? HARMAN: I think that a process should be followed. I think the people who should be held to account are the people who made the decision not to follow FISA, and those were not the telecom executives.

Actually, "the people who made the decision not to follow FISA" most certainly did include the telecom executives -- as well as people like Jane Harman herself who, in her capacity as ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, was told about the illegal spying program and supported it as "legal and necessary," and even tried to bully journalists into refraining from exposing it.

Exactly the same thing happened with Jay Rockefeller and Bush's torture program. It is absolutely the case that, as Mayer pointed out yesterday and as I wrote about at the time, Bush officials faced serious danger of criminal liability in the wake of the 2006 Hamdan ruling that the Geneva Conventions applied to Al Qaeda and Taliban detainees. But the Military Commissions Act, passed several months after the Hamdan ruling, took care of that problem by immunizing the lawbreakers. Jay Rockefeller was right there supporting that retroactive immunity, too -- thereby helping to block investigations and prosecutions for illegal torture programs about which Rockefeller knew and in which he was complicit. This is exactly the dynamic which Law Professor, Fourth Amendment expert, and Simple-Minded, Confused Leftist Hysteric Jonathan Turley was describing on MSNBC on June 19:

I mean, the Democrats never really were engaged in this. In fact, they repeatedly tried to cave in to the White House, only to be stopped by civil libertarians and bloggers. And each time they would put it on the shelf, wait a few months, they did this before, reintroduced it with Jay Rockefeller's support, and then there was another great, you know, dustup and they pulled it back. . . .

I think they're simply waiting to see if the public's interest will wane and we'll see that tomorrow, because this bill has, quite literally, no public value for citizens or civil liberties. It is reverse engineering, though the type of thing that the Bush administration is famous for, and now the Democrats are doing -- that is to change the law to conform to past conduct.

It's what any criminal would love to do. You rob a bank, go to the legislature, and change the law to say that robbing banks is lawful. . . .

This is a very frightening bill. What people have to understand is that FISA itself is controversial. This court issued tens of thousands of warrants granted applications for surveillance without turning down any. Only recently did they turn down two. . . . What you're seeing in this bill is an evisceration of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. It is something that allows the president and the government to go in to law-abiding homes on their word alone, their suspicion alone, and to engage in warrantless surveillance. That's what the framers that drafted the Fourth Amendment wanted to prevent. . . .

Well, there's no question in my mind that there is an obvious level of collusion here. We now know that Democratic leadership knew about the illegal surveillance program almost from its inception. Even when they were campaigning about fighting for civil liberties, they were aware of an unlawful surveillance program as well as a torture program. And ever since that came out, the Democrats have been silently trying to kill any effort to hold anyone accountable because that list could very well include some of their own members.

And, I'm afraid this is Washington politics at the worst. And, so, I think that what you're seeing with this bill is not just caving in to a very powerful lobby, but also caving in to sort of the worst motivations on Capitol Hill since 9/11. You know, the administration was very adept at bringing in Democrats at a time when they knew they couldn't refuse, to make them buy in to this program, and now that investment is bearing fruit.

So, of course key Congressional Democrats who were made aware of these illegal torture and surveillance programs are going to protect the Bush administration and other lawbreakers. If you were Jay Rockfeller or Nancy Pelosi, would you want there to be investigations and prosecutions for torture programs that, to one degree or another, you knew about? If you were Jane Harman, wouldn't you be extremely eager to put a stop to judicial proceedings that were likely to result in a finding that surveillance programs that you knew about, approved of, and helped to conceal were illegal and unconstitutional?

When President Bush and Vice President Cheney celebrated the signing of the new FISA bill at the White House along with Jay Rockefeller, Steny Hoyer and Jane Harman (see the wonderful photos here), they weren't just celebrating with the political officials who helped protect them from consequences for illegal acts. They were celebrating with those who were participants in those acts, and who were therefore just as eager for immunity and an end to judicial proceedings as Bush officials themselves.

Glenn Greenwald was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator in New York. He is the author of the New York Times Bestselling book "How Would a Patriot Act?," a critique of the Bush administration's use of executive power, released in May 2006. His second book, "A Tragic Legacy", examines the Bush legacy.

© Salon.com

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