Mercury Rising 鳯女

Politics, life, and other things that matter

The Tortuous Route to an Investigation of Torture

Posted by MEC on April 30, 2009

I was listening last night to Keith Olbermann and Richard Wolffe parse President Obama’s answers to questions about torture. They expressed frustration that he didn’t come right out and say that the Bush Administration sanctioned torture.

And suddenly I remembered something. I once had a Bad Boss. She was a Very Bad Boss. She was so bad, her underlings took the risk of complaining about her to the über-boss. The über-boss expressed surprise, thanked us for our candor, deflected the complaints and promised us nothing.

And about a month later, the Very Bad Boss abruptly left the company to “pursue other opportunities”.

A few years later, I watched the same thing happen with another Very Bad Boss.

From these incidents, I learned that when the People In Charge have to deal with a serious problem, they don’t let on that they’re dealing with it until it’s time to take action. They may even specifically give the impression that they don’t see any problem that needs to be dealt with. They take time before applying the solution, in order to make sure the solution is successful and effective, and there’s no blowback.

I’m thinking that this is what’s going on with the torture issue: We don’t see the Obama Administration preparing to do the right thing, but that doesn’t mean they’re not doing it. They just know enough not to let on until they’re ready to take action, because there will inevitably be political repercussions and they don’t need the political attacks undermining their efforts.

Obama’s response to another question reinforces that impression. When asked why Obama’s Justice Department pursued the “state secrets” argument in the case before the Ninth Circuit Court after promising to not to continue Bush’s policy of claiming “state secrets” to evade accountability, the President replied that the case came up too soon for his new Administration to change the direction. The direct implications are that the case in question is not a precedent for the Obama Administration’s future actions, and that the Obama Administration won’t take hasty (and therefore ill-considered) action, no matter the calls for immediate action.

As President Obama said in a previous press conference, “I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak.”

So we shouldn’t let up the pressure for an investigation, but we also shouldn’t assume the worst.

7 Responses to “The Tortuous Route to an Investigation of Torture”

  1. Charles II said

    I hate to tell you this, but the politics at the top of an organization are about the same as the politics at the bottom of an organization, just as juvenile, but far more consequential and more cynical. It’s true that people at the top don’t tend to tell people at the bottom (or even each other) their intentions. But this is for the same reason that people at the bottom don’t talk about looking for another job, even with their friends. They know that if the information gets out, they’re f–ked.

    With legal stuff, you never talk about filing an indictment before you do, simply because it’s unethical and potentially illegal. So, if that were the only indicator, I wouldn’t be as pessimistic about the likelihood of a prosecution of Bush and Cheney as I am. The indicator to look at is the statute of limitations. As I understand it, abuses committed in 2001/2, such as the mass murder of Taliban captives by the Northern Alliance, are starting to toll, even under international law. So, unless the statute of limitations is extended, it won’t matter what their other intentions are.

    If you want to reassure me, tell me that I’m wrong.

    As for state secrets, as Jonathan Turley said on Rachel, any court would have granted them an extension to look at the issue if that was what they wanted to do. So, to me, the answer sounded like a lie.

  2. Actually, some other lawyers I know — including one who knows someone who is quite close to the situation — says that part of the problem is dealing with the wrecked DoJ Bush left behind. There were very few competent people left there, and the place was/is seriously understaffed so the incoming Obama people can’t just fire them all en masse and start over, not without jeopardizing the entire justice system.

    The reason that the Ted Stevens indictment got thrown out, despite the abundant evidence against him, was because of the sort of combined incompetence, ignorance and corruption that Bush and his AGs brought to DoJ. The place is made up of Federalist Society hacks and — even worse — Regent University grads, who are not only evil, but stupid AND evil, and whose idiocies led to things like the Stevens botcharoonie. (There are other, similar botcharoonies that have been blowing up lately, though mostly under the radar.)

  3. So far Obama has been doing everything exactly the way I hoped and expected, letting the information on the prior administration be released in response to FOIA requests and allowing the public case against them to be built before being forced to step back and let a special prosecutor be appointed.

  4. Charles II said

    Again, if the statute of limitations tolls, PW and M., it won’t make any difference. From the Washington Independent:

    Although the statute of limitations for torture is eight years, anyone accused is sure to argue that their conduct wasn’t technically “torture” and try to use as a shield the infamous John Yoo “torture memos” from the Office of Legal Counsel – defining torture as inflicting only the most extreme pain such as accompanies death or organ failure.

    “So lots of conduct for people involved in torture and assault, unless death resulted, the statute of limitations probably has lapsed on most of those claims,” says Anders. (If death results, there is no statute of limitations. According to Human Rights First, at least 100 detainees died in U.S. custody between August 2002 and February 2006.)

    Even the abuses at Abu Ghraib might have taken place too early to prosecute now. The mistreatment of detainees and the gruesome photographs depicting it surfaced in mid-April of 2004. “At least some abuse tactics were being used after Abu Ghraib, we believe,” said Anders. It might not be too late to prosecute some of the abuses.

    But Attorney General Eric Holder would have to act quickly to appoint a special prosecutor, as advocates such as the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights have proposed.

    • The deal here, Charles, is that the reason things are taking so long is not because Obama is Bush (he ain’t, despite what certain people with axes to grind may think), but because the DoJ is messed up beyond belief. Truly beyond belief. Plus, the nomination battle over Eric Holder and his deputies has literally meant that he and the first wave of people he’s brought in with him didn’t even begin to get situated in their jobs until around Easter time — and then they had to deal with the collapsing of several cases brought under the old regime, of which the Stevens case was only the most flashy.

      • Charles said

        I don’t think Obama is slow, PW. It usually takes a president a year or two just to get into the saddle. Legal stuff is always slow. And there’s no question that Bush left a dysfunctional department.

        If Obama is serious about seeking justice, he will put some muscle behind Conyers’ attempt to extend the statute of limitations. That will be very hard because the Senate is so corrupt. But this is one of those things that will define his presidency and shape American leadership for decades to come.

        At present, I don’t see it happening. I see a few years from now, all of Washington will say, “Gosh, isn’t it a shame that we couldn’t quite do this.” And the rest of the world will assume they are lying, that Obama like all other American leaders simply doesn’t care what happens to the little brown foreigners. I’d be happy to be surprised.

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