The Obama administration is losing control of the torture narrative, and there is a real possibility that the right may hijack this issue using classic Rovian playbook tactics. The half-measures and equivocation that have led up to this moment – the tepid, measure language of post-election Obama on the topic of prosecution combined with the preemptive pardoning of CIA agents who engaged in torture - has created a space for plausible deniability on the part of Bush administration, and generated an opportunity for legal limbo which will obscure the central thesis. Worse, recent discussions in the legitimate media have fed into neo-con talking point about “successful” water boardings, which in turn has revived that vile, Bush-era euphemism, “enhanced interrogation.”
The ghosts of the Bush years, chiefly Rove and Cheney, have kept the business of misinformation and Rumsfeldian word play going during their various soundings on Fox news and at various fund raisers. A week of attempting to distract the mainstream media with bogus, “tea-parties” (a motley assortment of heart-sickened Ron Paulists, anti-tax libertarian conspiracists, sore losers, and - distressingly – racists) utterly failed to derail legitimate talk of possible glimmers of hope on the economic horizon. The parties also failed to keep the release of the “torture memos” from making front page news. (It must be devastating to have lost complete control of the program.) But just as the possibility of having the past eight years of executive and judicial criminality brought out of the darkness was seeming like a reality, Obama opts to give the perpetrators of torture a pass. This is a transparently political move to gain favor with the Pentagon. Obama needs them on his side. He erred in selecting an outsider like Panetta to run things on that end. Now he wants to gain allegiances from those who may feel more kinship with the former vice president than the current young man in the White House. But always desiring to have and to eat his cake, Obama has made some gestures towards justice by suggesting, in a rather meager way, that those who actually gave legal direction and sanctioned torture may have to be prosecuted. According to recent reports, the top two names on the list are former Secretary of State Rice and Cheney.
(Now that they can no longer say they weren’t involved, Cheney and company must try to reframe the issue. No longer will they deny that it is torture, but they will say it was effective torture. This “evolution” of the Bush administration’s talking points on torture is distressingly similar to the pattern used to justify the invasion of Iraq: First it was to stop Saddam’s WMDs, then it was to fight terror, then it was a war for Iraqi freedom. )
Again, Obama is looking to please and be pleased. This is not a novel position for Obama. When he was the candidate for Illinois state senator he would race between the Methodist church and the local chamber of commerce, hoping not to mix up his speeches, the President had to keep many people happy, and if not happy, at least on his side, and if not on his side then, minimally, not totally against him. This is probably politics at its best and may make people like Chris Matthews salivate, but to a citizen concerned with justice, and interested in seeing bad men brought down, humiliated, and finally broken on the engines of our democratic ideals, these gestures smack of rudderless pragmatism.
But taking a step back (or down, as in, “talk me down!”) there might be a way for those who are interested in seeing Cheney, et al answer for their crimes to meet Obama and AG Holder half way. The compromise might be truth rather than justice. It might involve knowing what really happened in our name rather than having our fondest wishes realized (in my case, Cheney bunking with Rove in a Federal prison cell). As I mentioned in an earlier entry, truth and reconciliation, as practiced in South Africa, may be a way forward for us as a country. People interested in justice may have to accept that power, money, and influence often trump concerns for due process and a final accounting. After all, Henry Kissinger is still at large, despite the protestations of Chris Hitchens. But the truth does matter. And there are people who worked in the Satanic bursaries of Rice and Cheney. There are CIA agents dying to light candles and tell their stories of orders to torture and their subsequent haunted dreams of no small distress. Such a drawing together of the supporting cast would generate a catharsis which may heal places where mere prosecution (with all of its tendencies to mask truth behind ambiguity. Think how Bill Clinton parsed grammar to cast the language of sex into doubt.) cannot.
And beyond catharsis, might there be something else? Perhaps such a public airing would finally and forever discredit that amoral, cynical wing of the Republican party we have come to know as the neo-cons, and cast the hulking corpses of the Kirkpatricks and Scoop Jacksons into deserved oblivion, and their acolytes – Wolfowitz, Feith, Kristol, and Perle – into intellectual obscurity. What we’d be left with are Goldwater libertarians like McCain, plutocrats like Romney, dunderheaded populists like Giuliani and Palin, religious zealots like Dobson, and isolationists like Buchanan.
All of whom, I contend, would do less damage to the nation than the Cheney clique have done this past decade.