On the Nature of Accountability

Monday, July 13, 2009
The cover story for this week's Newsweek is an article about U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

The reporter details the precarious tightrope A.G's have to walk, between loyalty to the President that appoints them and the law. Some A.G's are good at this, but most are not (think Alberto Gonzalez).

The verdict on Mr. Holder is still out, of course, and the event that precipitated the discussion in the first place may turn out to define his term. I'm speaking, of course, of the decision to investigate the enhanced interrogation techniques used during the Bush administration's Global War on Terror. Although the President has indicated that he would prefer to leave the past where it is and look towards the future, the fact of the matter is that the decision isn't his to make - it's the Attorney General's. Mr. Holder has been exploring his options in this arena for some time, and he may end up appointing a special investigator* to look into it.

I have no idea what Mr. Holder will decide, but I'm of two minds on this topic. On the one hand, such an investigation will surely lead to partisan back-biting and recrimination. While this is par for the course for American politics, now is the not the time to distract our so-called lawmakers from serious issues that require their immediate attention (*cough*health care reform*cough*). I am so not interested in all torture, all the time coverage from news outlets, and the mere thought of hearing (even peripherally) Pat or Rush talk about such an investigation makes me want to take out my own eye with a fork. We have issues and problems that MUST be addressed during Obama's first term, and I suspect an investigation would derail those issues.

And yet...

Accountability matters. It matters a lot. No one is above the law, most especially those whose power is so vast compared to those whom they control.

Allowing Bush's insane clown posse to essentially do whatever the hell they want with no repercussions, accountability or consequences simply isn't an acceptable outcome to me. There's not much doubt in my mind that Bush, along with Cheney, Ashcroft, Rumsfield and the rest of the cronies knew exactly what was happening in those CIA interrogations, and in fact approved heartily of such tactics. Such moral bankruptcy must be addressed if we are to remain a nation of laws. All must be accountable, regardless of their position, how much money they have, or what their former position was.

However, I'm not interested in a pro forma investigation. Performing an investigation and "finding" that the CIA operatives were bad, bad boys and should be punished would be a big heaping pile of poo. I'm not interested in another Abu Ghraib type investigation, where some E-Nothing who's been in the service for 10 minutes is court martialed for their bad behavior and the folks who are actually responsible for such poor order and discipline, not to mention the policies behind it, slither away without even a slap on the wrist. No, if the operatives were acting in good faith, i.e., they had a reasonable assumption that their activities were condoned (even ordered) by their superiors, they should not be prosecuted. Please note that I'm not saying such individuals aren't morally bankrupt in their own right - I'm saying that the buck doesn't stop with them.

No, the folks who ordered such atrocities should be the ones held accountable for their war crimes (no, I don't think that's too strong a word). I don't care how far up it goes, and who the responsible parties are.

And yet...health care needs to be addressed now, not brushed under the carpet again due to a partisan distraction.

I don't envy Eric Holder. Not one little bit.


*May I recommend a certain Mr. Patrick Fitzgerald?

7 comments:

Steve Buchheit said...

If it's investigated it'll be derided as a frame-up. If it's not investigated it'll be a continuing cloud over our reputation. I vote for going forward. It may be a hell to slog through, but the end is worth it (in either outcome, prosecutions or determining they can't prosecute). And it should be the entire chain of command that's put under scrutiny.

But you're right, it'll be used as a way to derail the real business (the economy, healthcare, etc) by those who want progress derailed.

I remember when government could focus on more than one issue at a time (hell, my little village is going to handle our Charter, a Policy Manual rewrite, and the usual business in tomorrow night's meeting). I think that Obama's ability to focus on more than one things at a time has thrown many for a loop (mostly in the conservative media), as they've forgotten that it isn't abnormal to do so.

Eric said...

I think it's an all-or-nothing situation, prosecution-wise. Prosecuting low-level people and not the higher-ups would be, as Glenn Grenwald pointed out the other day in Salon, the worst of all worlds.

That having been said, as I understand the applicable laws, there isn't a "good faith" shelter, and it's telling that there were individuals and agencies who recognized that the orders being handed down were wrong and withdrew (the FBI refused to have anything further to do with the CIA interrogations after their field agents passed their misgivings up the chain).

Refusing an unlawful order is hard as hell, and there's a strong human tendency to respect authority even when it's clearly wrong (c.f. Milgram's infamous experiments in the late '60s). But that's why it's all the more important, I think, to draw the line in the sand clearly and deeply: if you violate human rights laws, you will be prosecuted, your superiors will be prosecuted, their masters will be prosecuted. "I was acting on orders" should never be invoked as an attempted defense ever again, and there should never be license given to set aside one's conscience.

But I'm a crazy liberal nutjob, it's not like what I think matters.

Janiece Murphy said...

Eric, if you're a crazy liberal nutjob, then I am, too.

I do understand the meaning of an unlawful order, and suspect that the operatives in question were following such. I'm just a bit on the fence regarding prosecuting them.

I suspect you're correct about it being an all-or-nothing situation, even if it means otherwise upstanding people end up being found "guilty."

The entire thing is just fucking depressing as hell. How did we end up here? HOW?

mom in northern said...

Have to vote with Eric on this one.

Remember the 80+ year old duffer we shipped back to Germany to face a war crimes trial? He was ONLY a guard during WWII.

No one should get a "get out of jail" free card on this...but to say that some are "more" guilty than "others" ???

Can't argue with that.
Lets start with Chaney.

Eric said...

Y'know, I was thinking about Demjanjuk (yes, I had to look up the spelling), too.

Nathan said...

If an investigation goes forward (and I hope it does), they'd better prosecute everyone involved. Following orders is no excuse. But, you know what? Issuing the orders is worse. An investigation should be all the more vigorous of chasing it to the top...wherever it leads.

Nathan said...

And this makes me (sorta giddily) envision the following:

Obama: I'm announcing tonight that regardless of where AG Holder's investigation leds, I am issuing a pre-emptive pardon for President Bush.

Bush: Preemptive pardon? Fuck you Barack! I don't need no pardon.

Obama: Uh, that's what you think.