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Establishment Washington Unifies Against Prosecutions

The Washington Post's David Ignatius today does what he does best:  serve as the spokesman for the Washington establishment's most conventional wisdom in a way that really illuminates what it is:

To underscore the message, Obama indicated that he would oppose retrospective investigations of wrongdoing by the CIA and other agencies, arguing: "When it comes to national security, what we have to focus on is getting things right in the future, as opposed [to] looking at what we got wrong in the past." This is the kind of realism that will disappoint liberal score-settlers, but it makes clear that Obama has a grim appreciation of the dangers America still faces from al-Qaeda and its allies.

The word "liberal" has undergone a remarkable transformation over the last eight years.  All that has been necessary to qualify is a belief in such radical, exotic and fringe-leftist concepts as search warrants before the Government can eavesdrop on our communications; due process before the state can encage people for life; adherence to decades-old Geneva Conventions restrictions which post-World-War-II America led the way in implementing; and the need for an actual, imminent threat from another country before we bomb, invade, occupy and destroy it. 

Now added to the pantheon of "liberal" dogma is the shrill, ideological belief that high government officials must abide by our laws and should be treated like any other citizen when they break them.  To believe that now makes you not just a "liberal," but worse:  a "liberal score-settler."  Apparently, one can attain the glorious status of being a moderate, a centrist, a high-minded independent only if one believes that high political officials (and our most powerful industries, such as the telecoms) should be able to break numerous laws (i.e.:  commit felonies), openly admit that they've done so, and then be immunized from all consequences.  That's how our ideological spectrum is now defined.

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The more important development highlighted by Ignatius' name-calling is how important it has obviously become to establishment media and political figures to vigorously argue against investigations and prosecutions for Bush crimes and even to rehabilitate Bush officials as well-intentioned leaders who, at worst, went a little overboard in protecting us.  Digby raised this question the other day:  given that there is virtual unanimity among our political and media elites that we do not and should not hold American political officials accountable when they break the law and (especially) when they commit war crimes -- indeed, outside of civil liberties groups and a few political advocates here and there, it's virtually impossible to find anyone advocating that Bush officials should be criminally investigated -- why has it become such a priority for establishment figures to defend Bush officials and urge that there be no prosecutions?  As Digby put it:

I'm beginning to wonder if there isn't more to all this than is obvious. I don't honestly think anyone wants to deal with the torture regime, and it doesn't seem to me that there is a huge public clamor for it. For most people, it's probably enough that the president has promised to end the policy. So, I'm a little bit surprised that it remains so prominent on the radar screen. Something doesn't scan.

I'm not sure I know the answer exactly, but there seems rather clearly to be two primary factors at play:

First, Bush officials didn't commit these crimes by themselves.  Virtually the entire Washington establishment supported or at least enabled most of it.  It isn't merely that leading Congressional Democrats were, to one degree or another, complicit in these acts and are therefore hamstrung in investigating crimes of which they were aware and did nothing to stop, though that is true.  The enabling of all of this extends far beyond the leadership of the two parties.

As confirmed accounts emerged years ago of chronic presidential lawbreaking, warrantless eavesdropping, systematic torture, rendition, "black site" prisons, corruption in every realm, and all sorts of other dark crimes, where were journalists and other opinion-making elites?  Very few of them with any significant platform can point to anything they did or said to oppose or stop any of it -- and they know that.  Many of them, even when much of this became conclusively proven, were still explicitly praising Bush officials.  Most of them supported the underlying enabling policies (Guantanamo and the permanent state of war in Iraq and "on terror"), and then cheered on laws -- the Military Commissions Act and the FISA Amendments Act -- designed to legalize these activities and retroactively immunize the lawbreakers and war criminals from prosecution.  

So when these media and political elites are defending Bush officials, mitigating their crimes, and arguing that they shouldn't be held accountable, they're actually defending themselves.  Just as Nancy Pelosi and Jay Rockefeller can't possibly demand investigations for crimes in which they were complicit, media stars can't possibly condemn acts which they supported or, at the very best, towards which they turned a blissfully blind eye.  They can't indict Bush officials for what they did because to do so would be to indict themselves.  Bush officials need to be exonerated, or at least have their crimes forgotten (look to the future and ignore the past, they all chime in unison), so that their own involvement in it will also be cleansed and then forgotten.

Second, and quite relatedly, is that establishment elites have, by definition, a vested interest in glorifying and protecting the Washington establishment.  It's perfectly fine to have a President who is inept or even somewhat corrupt.  A titillating, tawdry sex scandal is also fun, even desirable, as that keeps entertainment levels high.  That's all just part of the political cycle.

But to acknowledge that our highest political officials are felons (which is what people are, by definition, who break our laws) or war criminals (which is what people are, by definition, who violate the laws of war) is to threaten the system of power which, above all else, they are desperate to maintain, as it is their role within it as royal court spokespeople that provides them with their access, prominence, wealth and self-esteem.  Their prime mandate is to protect and defend establishment Washington -- most media figures are integrals parts of that establishment, not outside of it -- and that means, above all else, attacking anyone who would dare suggest that the establishment has been rotten, criminal and evil at its core.

In a typically superb essay -- entitled "Flushing the Cheney Administration Down the Memory Hole" -- Billmon compares the process currently underway to how adept the Soviets were at simply erasing embarrassing and unpleasant episodes from their history:

It shows just how far the system -- specifically, in this case, the Beltway political press -- has wandered from reality.

You can see this in just about all of the transition coverage. Reporters (like the ones responsible for the journalistic abomination above) and columnists and pundits are busy cranking out the usual lame duck legacy stories, as if this were the "normal" end of a "normal" presidency, instead of the concluding chapter of a national tragedy.

There is just a yawning disconnect between the nature of the crimes allegedly committed (and, in many cases, essentially admitted): waging aggressive war, torture, secret prisons, illegal wiretapping on a massive scale, obstruction of justice, perjury, conspiracy -- to the point where it would probably take an army of Patrick Fitzgeralds and a full-time war crimes tribunal a year just to catalogue them all -- and how the story is being treated in the corporate media. . . .

And, as in late Soviet times, the absurdity of the official story line is only reinforced by the other systemic failures that surround it: in our case, financial collapse, plunging asset prices, massive fraud and a corrupt, sclerotic political system that may be incapable of doing even the most simple, obvious things (like printing and spending sufficient quantities of fiat money) to stave off an deeper downward spiral.

This being the case, I have a strong hunch the political-media complex (i.e. the Village) is going to want to move fairly quickly to the post-Soviet solution I described earlier -- skipping right over the perestroika and glasnost to get directly to the willful amnesia and live-in-the-moment materialism of mid-1990s Russia.

Which means, in turn, that Bush, Cheney, Rummy, Feith and the whole noxious crew are about to get flushed straight down the memory hole: banished fairly quickly from public discussion and corporate media coverage -- in much the way the Iran-Contra scandal (go ahead, Wiki it) was almost immediately forgotten or ignored once it became clear that the fix was in. America apparently had its big experiment with truthtelling and reform in the post-Watergate era, and the experience was so unpleasant that nobody (or nobody who counts) is willing to go there again. That would be like expecting the Baby Boomers to start dropping acid again.

The political/media establishment isn't desperately and unanimously fighting against the idea of investigations and prosecutions because they believe there was nothing done that was so bad.  They're fighting so desperately precisely because they know there was, and they know they bear much of the culpability for it.  They fear disruptions to their own comforts and prerogatives if any more light is shined on what happened.  The consensus mantra that the only thing that matters is to "make sure it never happens again" is simply the standard cry of every criminal desperate for absolution:  I promise not to do it again if you don't punish me this time.  And the prevailing Orwellian Beltway battle-cry -- look to the future, not the past! -- is what all political power systems instruct their subjects when they want to flush their own crimes down the memory hole.

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Two unrelated notes:

(1) To follow up on the Tom Friedman claim from yesterday that Hamas will lose support if Israel kills enough Palestinian civilians, The New York Times today reports that "The more bombs in Gaza, the more Hamas's support seems to be growing at the expense of the Palestinian Authority."  This was the (self-evident) point made so well yesterday by Daniel Larison:  if a foreign power drops lots of bombs on a population (to say nothing of stories like this and this), they tend to become more hostile to those doing the bombing and more supportive of their own leaders, especially if those leaders vow retribution against the attackers.  As Jonathan Schwarz recalls, Tom Friedman's own demented reaction to the 9/11 attacks illustrates exactly how that dynamic works.

(2) In The Los Angeles Times' Op-Ed "Dustup" feature this week, I'm debating various issues surrounding the last days of the Bush administration with American Spectator Editor W. James Antle II.  The first installment (which, truth be told, wasn't all that fascinating) is here; today and tomorrow's sessions will hopefully be more probing.


UPDATE:  Throughout the 20th Century, the U.S. has criminally prosecuted people for waterboarding -- both foreigners who did it and then were prosecuted as war criminals, and American law enforcement officers who did it and were prosecuted as ordinary criminals.  But now, in America, MSNBC devotes three hours every day to hearing from someone -- Joe Scarborough -- who just the other day spent six minutes on television explicitly defending torture.  There is something about this clip that is simultaneously repulsive and yet fascinatingly illustrative about what the country has become:


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Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, constitutional lawyer, commentator, author of three New York Times best-selling books on politics and law, and a staff writer and editor at First Look media. His fifth and latest book is, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, about the U.S. surveillance state and his experiences reporting on the Snowden documents around the world. Prior to his collaboration with Pierre Omidyar, Glenn’s column was featured at Guardian US and Salon.  His previous books include: With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the PowerfulGreat American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican PoliticsA Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency, and How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President Run Amok. He is the recipient of the first annual I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism, a George Polk Award, and was on The Guardian team that won the Pulitzer Prize for public interest journalism in 2014.

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