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Political Advisers Sank Truth Commission

By Dan Froomkin
1:55 PM ET, 06/15/2009

There's a lot of headline-worthy news in Jane Mayer's fascinating New Yorker profile of CIA director Leon Panetta. But what surprised me the most was that Panetta initially supported the establishment of a blue-ribbon commission to investigate the abuses of the Bush administration -- and was talked out of it by the White House.

A familiar right-wing argument against the establishment of such a commission has been that too much second-guessing would paralyze and demoralize the CIA. But it appears that Obama's opposition wasn't based on national security concerns -- it was a crassly political call.

Mayer writes:

"I'm not big on commissions," Panetta told me. "On the other hand, I could see that it might make some sense, frankly, to appoint a high-level commission, with somebody like Sandra Day O'Connor, Lee Hamilton—people like that." The appeal was that Obama could delegate to others the legal problems stemming from Bush Administration actions, allowing him to focus on his ambitious political agenda. "In the discussion phase"—early in the spring, before Obama decided the issue—"I was for it," Panetta said. "Because every time a question came up, you could basically say, 'The commission, hopefully, is looking at this.' " But by late April Obama had vetoed the idea, fearing that it would look vindictive and, possibly, inflame his predecessor. "It was the President who basically said, 'If I do this, it will look like I'm trying to go after Cheney and Bush,' " Panetta said. "He just didn't think it made sense. And then everybody kind of backed away from it."

In an interview with Scott Horton for the Daily Beast, Mayer further explains:

Any serious look back at how American came to embrace torture would inevitably lead to Cheney. It would also likely end up having to reexamine the false confessions from coerced detainees that helped get us into the war in Iraq. They just see too much partisan political peril in it.

Horton: What was the breakdown on this issue in the Obama White House—who else spoke against the commission concept, and what were their arguments?

Mayer: The opposition really came from Obama's political advisers. David Axelrod, I know, thinks a commission would be a mistake. Basically, they regard their ability to hold the support of independent and conservative Democratic voters as essential politically for their very ambitious agenda. They dread any issue that could launch a divisive culture war. An exploration of Bush's use of torture, seen from this perspective, is a potentially dangerous political distraction.

But as Glenn Greenwald blogs for Salon:

Ultimately, there is a real irony to the Obama administration's active, concerted efforts to prevent accountability for past crimes: namely, the greater the suppression efforts, the greater the focus on past Bush abuses will be, since evidence of Bush crimes will seep out slowly and in increments, and there will be constant controversies concerning the Obama administration's suppression efforts themselves.

Panetta also tells Mayer something most others in the Obama administration -- or the media -- dare not say: That former vice president Dick Cheney has gone way beyond the pale. Mayer writes:

Panetta...responded to Cheney's [May 22] speech with surprising candor. "I think he smells some blood in the water on the national-security issue," he told me. "It's almost, a little bit, gallows politics. When you read behind it, it's almost as if he's wishing that this country would be attacked again, in order to make his point. I think that's dangerous politics."

Mayer describes how Panetta -- and Obama -- are surrounded by CIA holdovers who were complicit with, if not culpable in, the Bush torture legacy. "America's intelligence community is an incestuous one, making it difficult for a President to break with old ways of thinking," she writes.

Walter Pincus gleans yet more news from Mayer's article:

Weeks after President Obama took office, the CIA extended its contract with a firm run by two psychologists who helped introduce waterboarding and other harsh methods to the agency's interrogation techniques, according to a news report.

Two months later, CIA Director Leon Panetta fired Mitchell, Jessen & Associates and all other contractors that aided the CIA in its interrogations of alleged terrorists, the New Yorker reported this weekend.

And, Pincus writes:

Panetta said John Helgerson, the recently retired CIA inspector general who investigated the interrogation program in 2004, told him that no officer still working at the agency went beyond the legal boundaries set by the Bush Justice Department. But the magazine reported that Helgerson, who is not a lawyer, said he told Panetta only that he knew of no prosecutable cases but that "continuing work was being done."

Helgerson also said he had sent several cases involving CIA interrogations to the Justice Department for possible prosecution. In one from November 2003, termed a homicide, an Iraqi detainee at the Abu Ghraib prison died from asphyxiation after being hooded and hung by his arms while suffering from broken ribs.

At Justice, according to the magazine, the cases have languished.

For those of us hankering for more disclosure, Mayer has some vaguely encouraging words:

Few activists expect lawsuits against the C.I.A. or its contractors to succeed. But John Sifton, an attorney who specializes in human-rights law, and who is part of [Abu] Zubaydah's legal team, notes that there are other ways for the detainees' grievances to become public. "The act of prosecuting the high-value detainees will be the accountability process," Sifton said. "It's impossible to try these detainees without allowing them to air all the information about their torture."

Other legal actions threaten to expose yet more secrets of the C.I.A.'s torture program. A prosecutor appointed by the Justice Department, John Durham, has convened a grand jury in Washington to weigh potential criminal charges against C.I.A. officers who were involved in the destruction of ninety-two videotapes documenting the interrogations of Abu Zubaydah and other detainees. Mickum told me that he has met several times with Durham, and believes that the scope of his inquiry may have expanded to include a review of whether the C.I.A. began using brutal methods on Zubaydah before it received written authorization from the Justice Department. (This would provide an extra motive for destroying the videotapes.) Mickum said, "I got the sense he was very serious." (Durham declined to comment.)

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