Saturday, April 25, 2009

A Tricky Trail Of Blood

I stole the title of this post from headline of an article written by Christian Wernicke for Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung. I chose Mr. Wernicke's op-ed from this week's collection at Watching America because it provided a welcome perspective on what can only be seen as America's shame.

Mr. Wernicke has captured precisely the American zeitgeist which allowed for the rationalization of torture as an acceptable tool in the Global War On Terror:

Back then, a few months after September 11th, they all feared that the al-Qaeda murderers might strike again. That’s what drove the Republican leadership to break with that which had always been at the core of America: democratic control of power: reverence for justice and respect for human values and rights. And they signed off on that which the CIA and Pentagon warhorses asked them to: a license to torture in the name of national security.

Nobody questioned anything back then; the end justified the means, as well as the so-called improved interrogation techniques. Morals weren’t the only thing swept under George Bush’s strategy table in his global war on terror.

He then moves on to the "tricky" path President Obama must now travel with respect to this shameful episode in our history. The president has already issued the equivalent to a pre-emptive pardon to those who did the torturing. CIA agents who engaged in that reprehensible behavior are forgiven because they were assured that what they were doing was "legal." Because of the hue and cry from his own citizens and from nations all over the world, however, he cannot just assume this will now all just go away so that he can "look forward." Recent revelations from Congress and from the release of Justice Department memos justifying the "enhanced interrogation techniques" cannot just be ignored.

It gets trickier for Obama the higher the torturers’ bloody trail leads. The former Justice Department bureaucrats, for example, who approved maltreatment on a large scale, should now be held accountable.

The next higher echelon will be even trickier. The Senate recently made an investigative report public in which there is a clear chain of circumstantial evidence against former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, showing his responsibility for the shameful and disgraceful events that took place at Abu Ghraib prison.

Obama cannot and should not ignore all this. But as President of all Americans, he also cannot unilaterally pass judgment on Rumsfeld, himself.

That’s why he’s considering the idea of placing the matter in the hands of an independent commission. He sees that as an act of reconciliation, but he must be careful that it won’t turn out to be just an excuse for forgetting the whole episode.

Mr. Wernicke must have written his column before further revelations made it clear that other members of the Bush administration were complicit in the affair. Vice President Cheney and then-National Security Advisor Condaleezza Rice joined in the call for the use of torture even in the face of both domestic and international law forbidding such interrogation techniques. The trail leads right into the heart of that administration.

The president has to stop wringing his hands nervously over worries of the faux claims of "partisanship" which will be made regardless of any moves he makes. While an independent commission with subpoena power and a pipeline to the Justice Department for the securing of indictments as necessary and as justified might be one approach, a surer, more direct road would be to assign the issue directly to the Justice Department. That is the agency charged with investigating crimes.

The president should also stop suggesting to Congress that it has more important things to do than to "look backward." Congressional investigations should be encouraged, not quashed, even if members of the intelligence committees of the two houses are found to have been less than diligent in their oversight.

Justice and our national honor require no less, and make no mistake: if this nation does not act on this foulness, other nations will, thereby increasing our shame. This is a time for leadership, not pearl clutching. I hope President Obama is up to the job.

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