Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Pardon Them

Andrew Sullivan has the latest Bush Administration Guantanamo disgrace: according to the chief of staff to the Secretary of State, it was the Vice President of the United States
whose position could be summed up as “the end justifies the means”, and who had absolutely no concern that the vast majority of Guantánamo detainees were innocent, or that there was a lack of any useable evidence for the great majority of them. If hundreds of innocent individuals had to suffer in order to detain a handful of hardcore terrorists, so be it. That seemed to be the philosophy that ruled in the Vice President’s Office.
This is from a statement to the court under oath, as reported by the (London) Times.   Do click over and read the whole story, and Sullivan's reaction (and see too Conor Friedersdorf).  And stop and think about it for a while. 

Regulars know my position.  It is very understandable that Barack Obama doesn't want to deal with this.  He's not planning to torture anyone.  He's not planning to kidnap people and dump them in a prison thousands of miles from their homes, to let them rot there for the rest of their lives, innocent or not.  He's the guy who is putting a stop to this unAmerican evil, not the guy who did it -- so why, since he's putting a stop to it, should he risk his presidency fighting this fight.  He has so much on his plate -- pundits and pols alike worry that he has too much on his plate.  Can't he just promulgate good policies, and leave it at that?

I'm convinced that he can't.  This isn't going to go away.  Presidential leadership on this issue may be costly, but lack of leadership is going to be even more costly (see, for example, Marc Ambinder's latest update).  Again, regulars know that I believe the least costly way out of it is pardon-plus-commission.  Maybe that's not the answer; maybe someone else has a better idea.  As appealing as patience and muddling through might seem, however (and we know the president's instincts are often for just that, and in many areas those instincts serve him well), I just don't see it working in this area.  I don't see how you can run a foreign policy when stories such as this one are newspapers around the world, and the President of the United States isn't doing anything about it -- and the loudest voices in the out-party are applauding torture and kidnapping.   Really, I'd love for someone to show me a path in which benign neglect works -- not morally, since it obviously doesn't, but pragmatically. 

One more time: a high official in the last administration, under oath, told a court that the administration he was part of had committed terrible crimes. 

Don't ignore this.  Don't.


  1. "I don't see how you can run a foreign policy when stories such as this one are newspapers around the world, and the President of the United States isn't doing anything about it -- and the loudest voices in the out-party are applauding torture and kidnapping."

    I think the second half of that sentence explains the lack of action - first the President has to re-teach Americans why humane treatment of prisoners, the right to a fair trial, and presumption of innocence are core American values. The fact that a portion of the country believes that these things can be set aside is a sad commentary on how far we've fallen, but when 30-40% of people believe that such rights can be discarded there's no way to address the past without feeding a right wing frenzy and making any progress impossible.

    The administration efforts seem to be moving in the right direction - we no longer hear horror stories that turn Al Qaeda into supermen who will wipe America off the map, and attempts to put terrorist suspects on trial and close Guantanamo seem aimed at a slow return to normalcy. Overall the approach seems like another of Obama's typical slow, plodding, and generally successful moves to achieve his goals over the long term.

  2. I am against pardon-plus-anything. If you look back to Watergate, the major thing that Rummy and Cheney and other Nixon minions learned, and then proved at Iran-Contra, that if your crimes are big enough, and horrible enough, and you were powerful enough, that there would be no accountability. The elite political-media class has no appetite for holding Republicans accountable for their crimes. After all, the principals of Watergate became the principals of Iran-Contra, and then they came back to work for the Bush Administration. These were the SAME PEOPLE -- Rummy, Wolfie, Cheney, Poindexter, et al -- who returned to commit even bigger crimes, with even more impunity. If they are pardoned once again, you are almost guaranteeing that the next Republican administration will be even more criminal than the last.

    I'd rather Obama wait for his second term and do *something* than to take the easy way out with pardons all around. It would be incredibly damaging to allow these rogues to get away with their crimes ONCE AGAIN. If that can't be done, then enlist an international body to deal with them.

    As a political scientist, Jonathan, what is your assessment of the Watergate and Iran-Contra pardons? You apparently don't think they have been as damaging in the long term as I do. Just let bygones be bygones? What kind of effect does that have in the long term? I ask sincerely.

  3. James,

    I'm writing a long post to respond to your question, so check in on Wednesday. Just on the fact-check side, though, it's not true that the people involved in Watergate, Iran-Contra, and Bush's torture policies were the same people. Watergate and the other two have virtually no overlap at all, and I'm not aware of any real formal overlap between Iran-Contra and W's torture policies, although it is possible that some of the people who went on to be in the Bush administration were informal advisers to people in the Reagan administration (and I suppose some could have been pretty low-level staff in 1986 and then more important after 2000, but I don't know of anyone who fits that, and even if so I'm fairly confident they weren't involved in Iran-Contra).

  4. Well, of course Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Richard Perle were all in the Nixon administration, for example, and they were infesting the federal government in various ways during Reagan-41 as well. As a Congressman from Wyoming Cheney had a prominent role in investigating Iran-Contra before he became SecDef for 41. Cheney and 43 brought on any number of Iran-Contra players like Reich and Negroponte including ex-felons from the Reagan years that 41 pardoned -- Poindexter, Abrams, for example.

    I'm not looney enough to assert vast rightwing conspiracy, I'm just saying, what did all those pardons from Watergate and Iran-Contra teach us about holding high government officials responsible for crimes committed while holding important jobs?

    I'll be looking forward to your perspective on it.

  5. Abrams is really the only one of these who was pardoned and then came back. I think you have a case with him. The others...Poindexter wasn't pardoned; he was (like Ollie North) convicted, but then won an appeal. He did return to politics (briefly, but yes) in the Bush administration. Negroponte, AFAIK, wasn't really involved in Iran-Contra (he was involved in helping the Contras, but I think that was before anything illegal happened). None of the people you list in the Nixon administration had anything to do with Watergate.

    Basically, I do think that the GOP whitewashed the Iran-Contra folks, but I don't think that the Bush pardons really had anything to do with that. I can see an argument there, but I disagree. I don't see much of an argument on Watergate at all, because a lot of people went to prison and virtually no one involved got back into government.

  6. Jonathan, I think that what James is saying is that the Watergate pardon for Nixon demonstrated to a bunch of lower-level guys (or higher-level, in the case of Rumsfeld) that there were limits on actual law enforcement. And for the guys who went to prison, IIRC, the sentences were ridiculously short, far shorter than we'd have gotten, and rehabilitation was reasonably fast.

    In Iran-Contra, these guys played it out to the bitter end, and got pardoned. Then they continued on and came back in during the next GOP administration - note that there was not problem getting them through the Senate confirmation process.

    At that point, they had realized that (a) the power of the pardon was an ultimate trump card, (b) that the criminal justice process was almost infinitely pervertable for executive branch officials, unless both parties in Congress were determined, and (c) that there was rehabilitation and outside jobs as final fall-backs.

  7. As a counterfactual, imagine a world where (a) the Watergate guys got stiff sentences - ~10 years. Nixon was put on trial, and sent to prison. In Iran-contra, the political attempts to block/delay prosecutions didn't work, because Watergate had established cultural precedents. If Bush I pardoned people, Walsh simply subpoenaed them and demanded full relevalations (no fifth amendment protections). Or Bush I didn't pardon people, because he was worried about the political careers of Dubya and Jeb, and pardons would have been a culturally radical step.

  8. The idea that Union citizens need to be "retaught" that torture and disappearing is bad just doesn't fly. Folks defending torture aren't doing it from a moral motivation; they engage in that talk for entirely partisan reasons which have nothing to do with the actual acts. Consider the Tea Baggers who, with one breath, condemn Obama for making "America" less safe by abandoning torture, and in the next, moan about the compulsive tyranny of an insurance mandate. No moral position can possibly square that circle, but it is very, very easy to understand once you realize that it is pure partisan rhetoric. U.S. citizens know torture and disappearing is wrong; if it were to happen to a person they knew they would scream to high-heaven. But it isn't, and they're sure it won't, and if any two things can be called an American past-time it is violent revenge fantasy and a callous disregard for "foreigners". So, given that these people are motivated by partisan interest, bolstered, perhaps by racial disdain, and that they don't see torture as an issue that they, personally will face, they feel no compunction against spewing the party talking-points on it. No amount of rhetoric or speechifying about torture's moral wrongness is going to alter that partisan complaint, and even policy would have to be abnormally effective to convince most of the pro-torture crowd to switch partisan affiliation.

    As to how the transgression of the past administration should be handled, I think the conversation is mostly pointless. Simply put, they won't be. Regardless of what anonymous senior officials have said (conversations much more likely to be propaganda than anything real, btw), this admin has been pretty clear about ignoring them whole-cloth; they've even sacrificed governmental transparency for the sake of doing so with the torture photos last Spring. With the death of Dawn Johnson's nomination, the stymieing of every attempt by Holder to deal with the torture issue in the courts, the continued use of Bagram as a Guantanamo-like prison, the White House's championing of Bush interpretations of presidential power and secrecy, and Obama's own consistent campaign for forgetfulness on the issue I think this admin has made it abundantly clear that they have zero interest, principally or pragmatically, in pursuing this subject. This will simply be another black mark in U.S. history, like Japanese internment, like the forcible conversion and kidnap of Amerind children, like the campaign to kill native languages, like reservation mismanagement and the Trail of Tears elided over in our books and discussions for decades until our polity is sufficiently removed from it by time to look back and condemn the dead to congratulate themselves for being enlightened enough to never do such a thing. Justice won't be done because it would hurt one of our political parties to do so, and both political parties put their own interests before the law or the people; for these reasons the Republicans will fight any attempt every step of the way and the Democratic leadership is simply more interested in governing than upholding the letter and spirit of the law in so costly a way.

  9. Oops; "...know torture and disappearing are wrong..."

  10. Barry,

    I disagree about Watergate...yeah, the prison terms weren't very long, but it's still prison, and most of them were finished in politics (and all were finished in government). On Iran-Contra, I agree, but don't think it was the pardons that were the problem.


    I agree about rank-and-file partisans. I also agree about the interests of the parties. Where I don't agree is that I think that Obama is trying to straddle a line (not actually doing evil things, but avoiding dealing with past evil) that, in the long run, just can't be straddled. And I do believe that there's a real chance of changing the incentives for (many) Republicans, and for nonpartisan gov't people who were involved.

  11. I absolutely agree with those who draw a line from Watergate thru Iran-Contra thru Bush torture/FISA-gate. Think of the pattern: in Watergate, we have a real investigation; prison sentences; the President disgraced, but pardoned. In Iran-Contra, we have a decent investigation, but not one that touches the President; some convictions; multiple pardons. Now, in Bush torture/FISA-gate, we're not even doing investigations. The culture of impunity is growing like a cancer.

    I would wish for prosecutions but that ain't going to happen. Pardon+commission is just more impunity, practically indistinguishable from Obama's preferred course of doing nothing, since the one glimmer of hope is that the facts of the matter *are* dribbling out. But I think we have to accept that there is no path forward, due to the political and moral fecklessness of the current Democratic and media establishment. The next Republican administration, or the one after that, is going to go full-on Seven Days in May on us, and there will be nothing to stop them. Possibly the over-reach will finally inspire genuine resistance by a new generation. That's the only hope, really.

  12. It's late and the post has scrolled off the front page, but I wanted to thank the couple of commenters, especially Barry and Egypt Steve, who seemed to understand my question and for kind of helping me flesh out my ill-formed unease about letting these executive branch criminals off the hook once again. I'm still looking forward to your take, Jonathan, but I see that you are largely missing my larger question. That's fair enough, of course; I don't have the wherewithal to write a complete essay in a comment window. It's a question, I think, that is worthy of an academic in political science, but perhaps a blog isn't the right medium.


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