Too Big to Fail, Too Big to Jail
Karl Rove recently described George W. Bush as a book lover, writing, "There is a myth perpetuated by Bush critics that he would rather burn a book than read one." There will be many histories written about the Bush administration. What will they use for source material? The Bush White House was sued for losing e-mails, and for skirting laws intended to protect public records. A federal judge ordered White House computers scoured for e-mails just days before Bush left office. Three hundred million e-mails reportedly went to the National Archives, but 23 million e-mails remain "lost." Vice President Dick Cheney left office in a wheelchair due to a back injury suffered when moving boxes out of his office. He has not only hobbled a nation in his attempt to sequester information - he hobbled himself. Cheney also won court approval to decide which of his records remain private.
President Obama was questioned by George Stephanopoulos about the possibility of prosecuting Bush administration officials. Obama said: "We're still evaluating how we're going to approach the whole issue of interrogations, detentions and so forth. ... I don't believe that anybody is above the law. On the other hand, I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backward ... 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."
Legal writer Karen Greenberg notes in Mother Jones magazine, "The list of potential legal breaches is, of course, enormous; by one count, the administration has broken 269 laws, both domestic and international."
Torture, wiretapping and "extraordinary rendition" - these are serious crimes that have been alleged. Obama now has, more than anyone else, the power to investigate.
John Conyers, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, has just subpoenaed Rove while investigating the politicization of the Justice Department and the political prosecution of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman. Rove previously invoked executive privilege to avoid congressional subpoenas. Conyers said in a press release: "I will carry this investigation forward to its conclusion, whether in Congress or in court. ... Change has come to Washington, and I hope Karl Rove is ready for it."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who blocked impeachment hearings, is at least now calling for an investigation. She told Fox News: "I think that we have to learn from the past, and we cannot let the politicizing of the - for example, the Justice Department - to go unreviewed. ... I want to see the truth come forth."
Why not take it a step further?
Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who led the charge in Congress for impeachment of Bush and Cheney, has called for "the establishment of a National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, which will have the power to compel testimony and gather official documents to reveal to the American people not only the underlying deception which has divided us, but in that process of truth-seeking set our nation on a path of reconciliation."
Millions have served time in federal prisons for crimes that fall far short of those attributed to the Bush administration. Some criminals, it seems, are like banks judged too big to fail: too big to jail, too powerful to prosecute. What if we apply Obama's legal theory to the small guys? Why look back? Crimes, large or small, can be forgiven, in the spirit of unity. But few would endorse letting muggers, rapists or armed robbers of convenience stores off scot-free. So why the different treatment for those potentially guilty of leading a nation into wars that have killed untold numbers, torture and widespread illegal spying?
Which brings us back to Bush and books. Ray Bradbury's novel "Fahrenheit 451" is one of the titles in the National Endowment for the Arts' "The Big Read." This ambitious program is "designed to restore reading to the center of American culture." Cities, towns, even entire states choose a book and encourage everyone to read it. In "Fahrenheit 451" (the temperature at which paper spontaneously combusts), books are outlawed. Firemen don't put out fires, they start them, burning down houses that contain books. Bradbury said: "You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them." The secretive Bush administration is out of power; the transparency-proclaiming Obama administration is in. But transparency is only useful when accompanied by accountability.
Without thorough, aggressive, public investigations of the full spectrum of crimes alleged of the Bush administration, there will be no accountability, and the complete record of this chapter of U.S. history will never be written.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
© 2009 The San Francisco Chronicle