Partisan Politics and the Accountability Commission

Notwithstanding commanding support in Congress and with the
American public, the creation of an Accountability Commission is now
being held up by the Obama White House. Critics of the concept have
consistently argued that it would be "just politics," a vehicle for
Democrats to pursue political retribution against the Bush Republicans.
But as I learned in an interview with the New Yorker's Jane Mayer, published earlier this week at The Daily Beast,
the truth is just the opposite: pure partisan politics is the biggest
obstacle to creation of a commission. Mayer told me that CIA chief Leon
Panetta had argued strongly for creating a commission but was blocked
by the President's two senior political advisors, David Axelrod and
Rahm Emanuel, who both believed that the Commission would drive the
Party of No to create a massive stink. Obama's affirmative agenda-in
particular, his proposed health insurance reform-would suffer as a
result. Panetta says he abandoned the effort in the face of their
resolute tactical opposition.

The issue led to cognitive dissonance in Obama's latest high-profile speech. At the National Archives,
he insisted that "our existing democratic institutions are strong
enough to deliver accountability." Yet only seconds later, he was
expressing concern that Congress would get bogged down in its study of
the question. He can't have it both ways. Obama is the consummate
politician of reason, but on this point his explanations don't add up.
In fact, the Accountability Commission alternative is necessary
precisely for the reasons he cites: it would allow the issue to be
fully explored while it is removed from the to-and-fro of daily
politics. It would insure that the issue would not complicate the
handling of his own legislative agenda. Obama's real reasons for
opposing the initiative are pure partisan political tactics, and that
can't be sold so smoothly in a public address.

Across the Atlantic, in Britain, Prime Minister Gordon
Brown reacted to pressure from Conservative lawmakers on Monday by
agreeing to a formal inquiry much along the lines proposed. The New York Times reports:

After years of delay, the British government
said Monday that it would go forward with a wide-ranging inquiry into
the country's role in the Iraq war, an issue that has caused deep
political divisions and protest since American and British troops
overran the country in 2003.

One of the major aims of the British inquiry is to assess
the extent to which Britain was misled by the Bush Administration and
how U.S. policies, including the torture and abuse of prisoners, spread
to British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given the sensitivities of
the Special Relationship, Gordon Brown insists that the inquiry proceed
confidentially-a demand that has infuriated many parliamentarians who
had been pushing for the probe. Nevertheless, the British move shows a
far more responsible reaction to the issues than have come so far from
the Obama White House.

The concept of an Accountability Commission isn't about to
fade. In fact, developments this summer will put the spotlight on the
question. On Friday, the Administration is required to release the CIA
Inspector General's report on the CIA's implementation of the Bush
Program. That report will show that the CIA was administering torture
techniques in a fashion inconsistent with the guidance given by the
Bush torture lawyers at the Justice Department-and that the latter kept
changing their advice to approve what the CIA had in fact done. If
fully released, the CIA IG report may contradict Vice President
Cheney's claims about "actionable intelligence" having been gained
through the use of torture, and it may express the view that the
torture techniques are unlawful, providing more evidence that the Bush
figures who ran the program were warned in real time of the possible
criminal law consequences of their conduct.

Later in the summer, the Justice Department's own internal
ethics probe will be released. It will detail that Vice President Dick
Cheney was the man who drove the entire torture program, pressuring
Justice Department lawyers to issue a stream of "get-out-of-jail" free
cards to those who ran the program for him when they expressed concern
about the prospect of prosecution. It will also show senior figures in
the Justice Department behaving just like a bunch of mafia consigliere,
fully cognizant of the fact that if their dealings are exposed, they
may go to jail for them. They rest their hopes on pure politics to save

So far, Obama's Justice Department is doing little to
dispel the concerns raised by the Bush team about politically directed
decisions. The most striking example of the Holder Justice Department's
ongoing politicization comes in precisely the area of torture
accountability. Obama and his political advisors, applying a blatantly
partisan political calculus, have now repeatedly expressed their view
that there should be no criminal investigation of this issue. They say
that Holder will decide these matters according to the law, but Holder
seems fully prepared to take his political cues from the White House.
That means, as John Dean has just pointed out in a typically insightful column, that a decision not to investigate has been taken by default.

Dean gives us a series of strong new arguments for
accountability, taken from the late Samuel P. Huntington's study of
Latin America's struggle to overcome its legacy of authoritarianism, The Third Wave. Here is Dean's distillation of the Huntington thesis:

(1) "Truth and justice require it." The Obama Administration "has the moral duty to punish vicious crimes against humanity."

(2) "Prosecution is a moral obligation owed to the victims and their families."

"Democracy is based on law, and the point must be made that neither
high officials nor [the] military ... are above the law." Citing a judge
who was critical of a government amnesty proposal, Huntington added:
"Democracy isn't just freedom of opinion, the right to hold elections,
and so forth. It's the rule of law. Without equal application of the
law, democracy is dead. The government is acting like a husband whose
wife is cheating on him. He knows it, everybody knows it, but he goes
on insisting that everything is fine and praying every day that he
isn't going to be forced to confront the truth, because then he'd have
to do something about it."

(4) "Prosecution is necessary to deter further violations of human rights by [future] officials."

"Prosecution is essential to establish the viability of the democratic
system." If the Republicans and Bush/Cheney apologists can prevent
prosecution though political influence, democracy does not really exist.

Even if the worst crimes are not prosecuted, "at a very minimum it is
necessary to bring into the open the extent of the crimes and the
identity of those responsible and thus establish a full and
unchallengeable public record. The principle of accountability is
essential to democracy, and accountability requires 'exposing the
truth' and insisting 'that people not be scarified for the greater

There is no doubt that Axelrod and Emanuel are dispensing
smart partisan political advice to Obama when they tell him to can the
idea of an Accountability Commission and to block any criminal
investigation. But their advice is also lethal to the nation's
democratic traditions and to our Rule of Law tradition. Obama's
presidency has so far been marked by a series of compromises in the
interest of partisan political expediency. That is very far from what
he promised his voters and the country.

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