Priorities

By David Swanson

Is it important to counter the CIA’s lies about what it told a handful of congress members when? Of course it is. It’s important to expose every bit of the secrecy imposed by all agencies and departments of what we still rather goofily call the “executive” branch. This is a branch of government that has openly flouted subpoenas for years, and assisted others in doing so. The chairman of the senate judiciary committee is now afraid to subpoena Jay Bybee, or – probably – to blow his nose, without the approval of what we still call “the executive,” the individual who’s supposed to faithfully execute the laws of congress. (Prove me wrong, Senator Leahy, make my day!)

Is it important to expose the complicity of those congress members who were informed of crimes engaged in by Bush-Cheney and assisted, approved, kept silent, or helped enforce the silence of others? Of course it is. It’s unfortunate that this important work and that of the previous paragraph are being done largely by two different groups of people whose primary motivation is defending their sacred Parties. If it weren’t for that motivation, some people might be able to put this into perspective. But both jobs do need to be done.

However, the failure of House Democrats went far beyond the inexcusable failure to speak out (which would have indeed involved great personal risk). It included the refusal to impeach Cheney and Bush. And while the grounds for impeachment were numerous, the offense that drove most of the demand was a far more serious crime than torture, a crime that the torture was itself used to facilitate. (See below.)

Is it important to expose, not just the silent courtiers in Congress, but the key architects of the torture, those who ordered it, those who pretended to legalize it, those who engaged in it, all those in the “executive” branch who kept silent, and those who now refuse to prosecute the crimes? Yes. Indeed, this need dwarfs the petty partisan squabbling over whether it’s worse for the CIA to lie to Nancy Pelosi or for Nancy Pelosi to lie to the public. That’s not a moral question. There’s no excuse for an entity doing what the CIA does to exist at all. The only purpose of such a debate, although the exposure of information by both sides is useful, is to distract from what’s more important. And this is what’s more important: there is overwhelming evidence, including frequent public confessions by the former vice president, and less frequent by the former president, of felonies. Dick Cheney has become so obnoxious in bragging about his crimes that a former White House counsel to Bill Clinton now says that while he favors ignoring laws as a matter of principle he does want to make an exception and have Cheney indicted. But Cheney’s argument (also belonging to the media mega-conglomerates that air it so extensively) does not even pretend to be legal. It’s political. Its intended audience is President Obama, and Obama is clearly listening.

Do we have to restore the rule of law and break away from the notion that presidents’ political calculations should rule the land? Of course we do. Do we have to restore power to Congress, and is impeaching Jay Bybee the ideal tool to begin that process? Yes, of course it is, and there are lots of others. Should we be protesting, disbarring, filing complaints, and making citizen arrests? Yes, we must, and nothing is more important. But let’s keep in mind that the list of crimes is enormous and that the very worst crimes are ongoing, their prosecution (or even cessation) having slipped entirely from the radar screen.

The torture and the spying and the secrecy, the misspending of funds and lying to Congress and creating false propaganda, the meetings at which energy companies set our national policies in secret, the detentions and renditions and military commissions, the imprisonment of children and rape and murder, the secret laws and signing statements and executive decrees, the domestic use of the military except when possibly needed and the undermining of preparedness for natural disasters, the destruction of the economy and the politicization of the justice department and the ordering of obstruction of justice, and so on and so forth: all of these crimes were driven by a central crime that was from the very start exactly as public as Cheney’s current confessions to torture. That crime was the supreme international crime, two wars of aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq.

So, without violating the president’s policy of “looking only forward,” we can in fact take on the gravest of criminal abuses of the Bush-Cheney years, because the current president and congress are continuing and expanding on them. (Not that the torture has ended either or is likely to until it reverts from being a policy to being a crime).

Does the unconstitutional Three-More-Years-of-War treaty require that all American troops get out of all Iraqi localities by June 30, 2009? Is renaming them “non-combat” troops not good enough? No problem! We’ll just redraw all the maps so that where the troops are isn’t anywhere. And Congress certainly can’t object since it never authorized the treaty to begin with. That’s the sort of innovation that makes our country great!

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, in a war that now includes Pakistan, we’re sending more soldiers, putting them under the command of a new general with the most brutal and criminal record possible, expanding the mission, slaughtering innocents with drones, and melting the skin off children with white phosphorous. The volume as well as the character of the destruction in our two wars so dramatically exceeds what we have done with torture that it is almost offensive to put the two in the same sentence.

Absolutely we need to pursue wholeheartedly immediate prosecution for the clearest statutory crimes that are garnering the most attention. But we should stop fantasizing about President Obama’s secret long-term strategy to make prosecutions happen in a few years. We should realize why such a fantasy makes no sense. Obama is continuing and expanding illegal wars, continuing lawless detentions, permitting the continuation of torture by not prosecuting it, keeping illegal spying programs secret for a reason I’ll allow you to guess, rewriting laws with signing statements, making laws by decree, and declaring powers of secrecy undreamed of by Dick Cheney. For a president doing such things to take his foot off the neck of the attorney general so that an independent prosecutor can investigate the president’s immediate predecessor for doing similar things looks unlikely. It will become more likely if pressure is brought from abroad, from local and state levels, in civil cases, and through congress. It will become much more likely to the extent that we can persuade the current president to stop what he’s doing.

Right now, Americans who perversely consider themselves Republicans or Democrats first, and citizens second, are united against that strategy. They want to hold the other team’s people accountable only if their side gets immunity. Otherwise, they want immunity for all. But what if Democrats were willing to demand changes of Obama for the sake of prosecuting Cheney-Bush? And what if Republicans were willing to hold Cheney and Bush to the rule of law for the sake of doing the same to Pelosi and Obama? That is, what if ordinary Americans all decided that those in power should be accountable to the sovereign people of this country even if some of those held accountable were on your “team”? Or what if we outgrew and discarded the toxic idea of team loyalty, insisting on representatives’ loyalty to their constituents and the Constitution rather than parties, media corporations, or donors?

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