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Political Advisers Sank Truth Commission

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.)

By Dan Froomkin  |  June 15, 2009; 1:55 PM ET
Categories:  Torture  
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Well, if this was a political decision by Obama's team, then it's time for the nation to show Obama what the consequence of bad politics is: shower him with protest and disapproval until they learn that we want to know what happened. I can't say I'm surprised, with the hard-core operatives Obama's surrounded himself with, but I am disappointed. And I absolutely favor holding this guy's feet to the fire of public opinion.

Posted by: whizbang9a | June 15, 2009 2:18 PM | Report abuse

Nice to know that Bush is snickering at getting away with it, isn't it? Even nicer to know that Dick Cheney will die in bed surrounded heirs waiting to divide up the spoils of his rotten life.

BIG disappointment that Obama wants to let these guys skate. We have no footing from which to scold Iran.

Posted by: chrisfox8 | June 15, 2009 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Despite all the Republican cries of "most liberal president of all time" - Obama's really more of a "don't make waves" President. If we want Bush, Cheney and their minions held accountable for their crimes, it'll take a massive political movement.

Posted by: Common_Sense_Not_Common | June 15, 2009 3:49 PM | Report abuse

Despite not having a commission, every day we hear more and more about what really happened, who really knew what, etc.

Pragmatically, if Obama pushes this, does this not derail any chance he has of getting his major initiatives passed?

And if this continues on the course it is, where we find out more all the time, are we not effectively closing off the possibility that we will let something like this happen again anyway?

Maybe we let Cheney and Bush dies knowing they are despised and that we all know precisely what they did.

Posted by: scott1959 | June 15, 2009 5:04 PM | Report abuse

I don't think the reasons for not proceeding are what are typically considered 'political', although I guess they do fall in that realm. In seems like the choice was basically between reviewing/punishing those guilty of the approval and implementation of illegal wiretapping and torture or being able to run the government, with a chance to get the economy back on its feet and health reform enacted. With the need for 60 votes in the Senate to do much of anything and indications that Republican Senators would stick together and throw wrenches in the machinery of government if the investigations went forward, I'm not sure that Obama had a real choice on this one. I consider the rationale more pragmatic than political.

Posted by: allentown1 | June 15, 2009 5:20 PM | Report abuse

Also, this stuff is going to come out in the end, and the statute of limitations are such that some prosecutions likely will occur. Hard to see why it makes sense to do this during the honeymoon period of a new administration that wanted to restore bipartisanship. Getting the country moving in the right direction takes priority. Some just seem to have an extremely intense desire to see Bush/Cheney/Addington et al punished. While I sympathize with that desire, it is not worth the price of a failed Presidency, a depression, and a big help to AQ. Whatever one's view on the validity of the Iraq or Afghan wars, when we send young men into battle, we owe it to them not to toss out a lot of incendiary truth commission findings that put them at greater peril. If all of this info is to be released, the troops need to be brought home first.

Posted by: allentown1 | June 15, 2009 5:27 PM | Report abuse

I wonder how we could be so poorly protected from governmental abrogation of authority, in this age of instant mass communication and electronic information, when so many lawyers and scholars and learned people should be aware of our Constitutional crises.

Posted by: russgeer | June 15, 2009 5:51 PM | Report abuse

in his effort to keep the middle of the roaders..

0re0bama lost me and many progressives, and yes I did vote for him and relished the opportunity of our first black President.

He may be black, but that's only a facade. He's the new boss, same as the old boss.

as for bush cheney et al... they all belong at the end of ropes, period.

but 0re0bama isn't much better, he actually may be worse. At least with bush we never let our guards down, with the fawning MSM and hype, look how many are drinking the kool-aid...

every day, another 0re0bam betrayal...

to wit:

no prosecution for torture, waiting for 8 yr statute of limitation
continuation of kangoroo military tribunals
where hearsay becomes hard evidence to put you away for life or worse
we're now in 3 wars (Pak) vs. 2 under bush (soon 4 Iran)
no release of torture pics with GIs raping kids in front of their parents
Refusal to release !llegal wiretaping documents, Bye bye IV th
geithner, a totally goldman sachs cabinet (or GOoP) gates, huntsman to China, etc...
TARP, trillions for banksters, nothing for you ("Boo hoo, social security is almost bankrupt!")
no prosecution or even investigation for lying, evidence destroying CIA (torture tapes)
Dismissal by obama of Valerie Plame suit (via CREW) against bushies
new uSSa general in Afghan is knee deep in torture
the financial markets are more rigged than ever by the presidential PPT (plunge protection team)
no usury limits on your credit cards
no single payer at the health care table, only insurance scamsters
"WAR with Iran in NOT off the table"
no pay cap for taxpayer bailed out CEO !
and on and on and on...

We've been had !

this is no change at all!

Posted by: 0re0bama | June 15, 2009 5:59 PM | Report abuse

I've had it with the repugnicans, the democraps, obamaliar and the rest.

Kuchinich, Ron Paul, Ralph Nader, others...

are you listening?

this is your time...

America is flat on its back and the traditional parties are goners (g0op for sure, democraps no far behind)



Posted by: 0re0bama | June 15, 2009 6:08 PM | Report abuse

Obama is doing exactly the right thing. By allowing the Bush corruption and criminality to leak out bit by bit, he gives public opinion the time to build and reach a consensus. If he were pushing investigations, there would be an equal and opposite blowback and the nation would be at war with itself again. He wants us all to calm down and work together to make things better. Bush will still be around when we have recovered, and we will know a great deal more of his crimes because more and more people will come forward, rats leaving the sinking ship. Eventually, the Bush ship will go down from the weight of its own lies.

Posted by: shaman7214 | June 15, 2009 6:45 PM | Report abuse

I regret to say that political expediency will win every time if you're trying to be a decent person. There will always be a policy initiative that requires gaining a vote here and a vote there.

Cheney's (evil) genius was his total disregard for politics and emotion. He literally took as much as he could get and dared anyone to stop him. The lesson for future Republicans is clear. I don't think the Democrats, even someone like Rahm, learned their lesson.

Posted by: boscobobb | June 16, 2009 3:13 AM | Report abuse

President Obama has referred to the huge mess left over from the previous administration - myriad lawsuits, the task of de-politicizing the apparatus of the executive branch, amid continuing wars and unfinished business left over from Bush.

Yet Vengeance is strong among the many who have fought against the lies and rationalizations of the Bush/Cheney apologists. Many of us want to know the Constitution and the moral high ground can be restored - but only from a thorough examination of the lawbreaking done in the name of "national defense".

Nevertheless, for the President himself to support inquiries and prosecutions, he would need to further divide us on unrelated but pressing issues: now health care reform, but also stimulus and realignment of the U.S. and world economy, turning around the Taliban war and making a graceful exit from Iraq.

We can wait. Obama does not need to be the point man on this. The Republican Party meanwhile will have to find its own moral compass - a process that will also aid in healing and further isolation of those to whom American policy is just another partisan issue.

I (finally) agree and support the President's decision to keep the focus on what can be done to "right the ship". The Truth will win out, and if it does so without vengeance and partisanship, it will be more just and more lasting in the American consciousness than any rush to "punish".

Posted by: rowens1 | June 16, 2009 8:24 AM | Report abuse

Are you kidding me? Obama isn't moving forward with this because as he finds out things, he realizes he would have done the same things given the hand dealt. He's really moving quickly on Gitmo, isn't he? He only releases things when he needs to deflect and in a fashion that is always out of context. I am amazed how much slack you're giving Obama. Wake up.

Posted by: mmourges | June 16, 2009 9:37 AM | Report abuse

The republican party backed by Bush Sr. and Gingrich had Ken Star and a team of investigators pursue the Clinton's to the tune of 157 million dollars. They went to extremes with propaganda and rhetoric to destroy his presidency and to deter the economic gain and progress of his administration. If the shoe was on the other foot right now their would be an investigation and criminal charges filed. What amazes me is after one meeting with Bush Jr Obama listened to his manipulation and practically jumped sides. I sure hope he isn't in their pocket.

Posted by: kimkimminni1 | June 16, 2009 11:03 AM | Report abuse

The republican party backed by Bush Sr. and Gingrich had Ken Star and a team of investigators pursue the Clinton's to the tune of 157 million dollars. They went to extremes with propaganda and rhetoric to destroy his presidency and to deter the economic gain and progress of his administration. If the shoe was on the other foot right now their would be an investigation and criminal charges filed. What amazes me is after one meeting with Bush Jr Obama listened to his manipulation and practically jumped sides. I sure hope he isn't in their pocket.

Posted by: kimkimminni1 | June 16, 2009 11:20 AM | Report abuse

No politician (and Obama is certainly one and I voted for him!) respects the Constitution enough to put it ahead of personal ambition and vanity. So sad. So disheartening.

Posted by: russhob | June 16, 2009 12:42 PM | Report abuse

When Obama shrinks from taking the high ground on contentious issues he just telegraphs to the GOP that he won't fight. He's alreaady caving to the coal companies on greenhouse gas emissions and to the insurance companies. And as for a transparent administration, you can forget it.

Posted by: afgail | June 16, 2009 12:54 PM | Report abuse

If a written law is not enforced, then in the real world, it isn't really a law.

If the law against torture isn't enforced, then in a practical sense, its legal to torture.

There are no good excuses for officials to refuse to do what their oaths of office expressly require: faithfully execute the law. I voted for Obama, but I am disappointed in the failure of his Administration to investigate and prosecute obvious law-breaking by previous officials.

Posted by: Observer44 | June 16, 2009 1:55 PM | Report abuse

President Geoge W. Obama should appoint a blue-ribbon panel headed by Liz Cheney and Jonah Goldberg to investigate war crimes. Now that Obama has committed war crimes himself, it would be interesting to see how Cheney and Goldberg would look at his crimes.

Posted by: dickdata | June 16, 2009 3:21 PM | Report abuse

The reason why Axelrod dissuaded Obama from supporting the notion of a Truth Commission is because Obama is at heart -- weak and always eager to please.

Obama does not want a fight. He does not want to upset the previous Administration. He does not want to appear partisan. He has no stomach for confrontation. He desperately wants to appease the hard-liners in the Government.

Why else would he refuse to back an investigation into potential war crimes like fabricating evidence and lying about the reasons for going to war in Iraq or massive warrantless wiretapping or torture???

He sounds awfully courageous when he was campaigning, but now he sounds... well, he sounds like Bush.

Posted by: winoohno | June 16, 2009 5:12 PM | Report abuse

We all seem too eager to ascribe motives to people we really don't know. Almost all monumental villans throughout history thought they were serving the greater good, including Hitler (but probably excluding Stalin). And most politicians are driven by Who, not What. Just witness the complete assumption of the opponents prior arguments by both parties as they switch positions from majority to minority and vice versa.

Posted by: Jabberwockie | June 17, 2009 10:00 AM | Report abuse

I'm tired of the contention that Obama is playing 11 dimensional chess. I want to see results, I want to see justice done, I want to see BHL fulfill at least some of his campaign promises. I don't want to be forced by his inaction to conclude that he is willfully complicit in the criminal and anti-American policies and crimes of the Bush administration. I don't want to be forced to conclude that there is no justice and no law whatsoever in this country for people with money and connections. Obama might as well wear some kneepads if he is going to keep prostrating himself before the right and its big business backers.

Posted by: sparkplug1 | June 17, 2009 2:57 PM | Report abuse

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