Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 8, 2009

THE WRONG THREAT.... Of all the various arguments against holding Bush administration officials accountable for alleged wrongdoing, this is probably the least persuasive.

Republican senators used a hearing Thursday with Attorney General Eric Holder to discourage an investigation into torture under the Bush administration. Both Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Richard Shelby of Alabama suggested that they would push hard to expand any probe of the CIA's "rendition" program and other legally and morally questionable tactics to include the Clinton administration, as well as members of Congress who were briefed on interrogation methods.

In other words, it's all just a partisan game. If there's an effort to apply the rule of law to Bush administration officials, Republicans might want decide to seek justice on a broader scale. And wouldn't that be awful.

In this sense, legal accountability for criminal wrongdoing, ensuring that no one is above the law, is not a bedrock principle of a mature democracy, it's a bargaining chip. Don't make us go there, Sens. Alexander and Shelby warn. If you investigate alleged crimes committed by guys who play for our team, we'll want to investigate alleged crimes committed by guys on your team, they caution the attorney general.

For all I know, some Democrats on the Hill or in the administration might find this persuasive. But to me, it doesn't sound like much of a threat. If Republican lawmakers have reliable evidence of officials in Democratic administrations committing war crimes, I think they should bring it forward. If these GOP members are willing to support an investigation of Bush-era wrongdoing if the probe will also consider alleged crimes committed by Democratic officials, that sounds like a deal most reasonable Dems should jump at.

Steve Benen 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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If Republican lawmakers have reliable evidence of officials in Democratic administrations committing war crimes, I think they should bring it forward.

If they had they would have done so in the 1990s.

Posted by: Jupiter on May 8, 2009 at 2:12 PM | PERMALINK

I suspect the Replicants would try to turn the whole focus of the probe to what the Dems had done. If that urge can be restrained, investigating all recent administrations could be useful. The deal would probably need some ironclad rules about how much resources would be devoted to each part of the investigation.

Posted by: Cap'n Chucky on May 8, 2009 at 2:19 PM | PERMALINK

...and if the Republican's feet are held to the fire, why, they will retroactively go back and accuse Johnson of smoking in a non-smoking federal building!

Posted by: sduffys on May 8, 2009 at 2:20 PM | PERMALINK

Don't we have something called the Statute of Limitations? I say, bring it on. Prosecute everyone, right after they leave office. Its the Roman way and it should work pretty well. I just dn't see where the Republicans get off arguing that they, in effect, *know* crimes were committed by previous administrations or by the dems in congress and didn't pursue them. Isn't that kind of admitting to conspiracy, or aiding and aabetting or at the very least obstruction of justice. Holder should demand that each of these republicans instantly furnish evidence of such criminal acts and an explanation for why they didn't report them in a timely manner.


Posted by: aimai on May 8, 2009 at 2:21 PM | PERMALINK

What the first guy said, they did everything to Clinton that they could. If they had anything else they would have used it back then.

Posted by: Rian Mueller on May 8, 2009 at 2:22 PM | PERMALINK

If I were Eric Holder, I would have said, "Rendition is about the only thing you did NOT investigate during the Clinton Administration, sir!"

Which is why it's good that I'm not Eric Holder . . .

Posted by: Lifelong Dem on May 8, 2009 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK

Bring it. As a lifelong Democrat, I would hope that any lawbreaking Democrats are appropriately punished under the law, for whatever offenses they may have committed.

Having said that, the threat to bring charges against members of Congress who were briefed is the weakest threat imaginable. They don't have the facts or the law behind them, nor do they have the power to hold hearings to make up shit and try to distract anyone. It's not even common sense: "We told about the illegal torture we were going to commit, so you should be punished as well." The most they can hope for is to have Fox news anchor raise "troubling questions" about what that idiot Jane Harman may or may not have heard.

Rule of law. Bring it, threats be damned.

Posted by: Travis on May 8, 2009 at 2:27 PM | PERMALINK

For all I know, some Democrats on the Hill or in the administration might find this persuasive.

for all we all know, every single one of those blighters in washington dc have little regard for the rule of law, democracy, honesty, or anything else outside of their own agenda...

what a country!

Posted by: neill on May 8, 2009 at 2:28 PM | PERMALINK

Is there really any debate as to whether the Clinton administration did extraordinary renditions? Since Richard Clarke and Michael Scheuer have written about it, I'm sure they'd be willing to testify. The problem for Republicans is it wasn't a deep secret, and they never complained.

Posted by: Danp on May 8, 2009 at 2:28 PM | PERMALINK

Tell me it isn't so. The dingbats who thought lying about a BJ was an impeachable offense NOW tell us they have evidence of even worse crimes? Can these persons who have withheld this valuable information be investigated for conspiracy to obstruct?

Posted by: Chopin on May 8, 2009 at 2:28 PM | PERMALINK

Aaaah, you all beat me to it. OF COURSE, if the GOP had more evidence of wrongdoing amongst Democrats during the Clinton Administration, they would've brought it up by now. Unless they were using that knowledge as some sort of bargaining chip against the Dem in question. Bu alas, they know full well CLinton's Adminitration was the most corrupt ever, and they're not going to let a little thing like lack of evidence dissuade them from their notion.

Posted by: slappy magoo on May 8, 2009 at 2:35 PM | PERMALINK

Sounds like you're talking about accountability. To borrow a word -- "quaint."

Posted by: Greg Worley on May 8, 2009 at 2:37 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah, this seems to be of a piece with the "Nancy Pelosi knew about the torture" propaganda being leaked out of some quarters of the CIA. As I see it, it operates on two levels. First, it's a direct threat against Democratic officials -- "if you come after us, we'll make your lives hell, too." But in a broader way, it's a threat against Democrats in general, on the false assumption that in this we're motivated purely by partisanship. (More projection from the Right.)

The universal reaction I've seen from the liberal grassroots is, if there are Dems who may be guilty in any of this, absolutely they should be investigated, too. Because our interest in this really is what we say it is, in upholding the rule of law.

Yes, we may question the reliability of some of the evidence, like the CIA "report," because we've learned from long experience not to get rolled by conservatives who will lie and exaggerate without compunction, but if the evidence holds up, follow it where it leads.

Posted by: Redshift on May 8, 2009 at 2:40 PM | PERMALINK

A sound point. However, I suspect that what Lamar and Shelby mean is not that efforts to investigate wrongdoing under a Repub. admin will be widened to cover the same under Democratic admins--which would be only right and proper--but that efforts to investigate wrongdoing under the Bush admin will have the Republican lie and slander machine working overtime generating sophistical claims that things done under Democratic administrations that are in fact quite different from what Bush and his people did are the same or worse. In the end the waters will be completely muddied and enough people will think that Democrats tortured gun owners or whatever (just as FDR caused the depression) that the exercise will have been entirely futile. It's not that I'm ruling out the existence of wrongdoing by Dems--there could well be some--but I'd be shocked if Republican interest in investigations, should there be any, would be motivated by an interest to expose wrongdoing to the light of day and see that justice is done or guided by a consistent and principled conception of what that wrongdoing might be.

Posted by: J on May 8, 2009 at 2:41 PM | PERMALINK

"if the GOP had more evidence of wrongdoing amongst Democrats during the Clinton Administration, they would've brought it up by now."

Yes, but that was before the hyper-partisan Democratic moving of the goalposts.

Don't be surprised when cravenly changing the rules for your short-term gain comes back to haunt you.

Posted by: Hogarth on May 8, 2009 at 2:44 PM | PERMALINK

To Messrs. Alexander and Shelby: Bring. It. On.

Posted by: Ayotunde on May 8, 2009 at 2:49 PM | PERMALINK

I have very mixed feelings about prosecuting Dumbya era personnel for torture, not because I think torture was justified--or is ever justified- but because I think crimes against humanity are only prosecuted by conquering armies, not conquering political parties. That being said, I continue to be amazed at the GOP's failure to even try and put forth alternative policy. The party (sect?, cult? fringe group?)is a one trick pony--We are against Democrats. I thought the headline about Sessions leading the fight against Obama's SCOTUS choice when no one knows who it is, is the clearest example, but "Don't investigate wrongdoing by Republicans because we will bring Democrats into the investigation" is a close second.

Posted by: terry on May 8, 2009 at 2:49 PM | PERMALINK

Blackmail by another name?

Posted by: Roger on May 8, 2009 at 2:50 PM | PERMALINK

How many years and how many dollars did they already waste trying to get Clinton? 7 years and $70m alone just on Whitewater.

In the words of King Dubya, "Bring it on..."

Posted by: Heraclitus on May 8, 2009 at 2:53 PM | PERMALINK

On the memorandum for the record that I saw online, the person writing it said 'It may be or may not be accurate" what does that means, someone has a vague memory of briefing top democrats (of course Pelosi was minority whip at the time) In any case are they saying if she had objected they would not have done it?

Posted by: JS on May 8, 2009 at 2:53 PM | PERMALINK


But no one would be prosecuted for "crimes against humanity' but for actual lawbreaking of perfectly ordinary american laws. Nothing to do with party politics. It should have been done under Bush but he didn't want to do it because he was ordering the law breaking. If we took your "let bygones be bygones" stance then there would simply be a new, de facto, four year to eight year statute of limitations on crimes. So long as you committed them wholly during one administration you could never be prosecuted. That's nuts. People were literally murdered here, not just tortured.


Posted by: Aimai on May 8, 2009 at 2:54 PM | PERMALINK

I watched the Senate exchange between Alexander and Holder, and my first thought was (and it continues today since I have not seen any follow-up) that Alexander doesn't care one iota about our heritage, our nation's sense of self, or our nation's laws. For him it seems political partisanship is what it is all about.

To the Honorable Senator Alexander and others who would embrace his foolduggery: We are not going to tolerate such pettiness - if torture was done in our name, the torturers must be brought before the law, PERIOD!

Dude, when you bring up the Clinton administration, you haven't made any credible observation. You have merely shown us what you are really all about - POWER and CONTROL. Alexander is an embarrassment to our representative democracy. I hope he and his kind can have the necessary epiphany that we American citizens don't buy his false equivalency.

Bring on the torture investigations! I have been a libertarian Republican for the past 31 years, and I call BULLSHIT on our current Republican leaders and all else who would work to protect torturerers at the expense of our Constitutional heritage - hands down!, and I am not alone! -Kevo

Posted by: kevo on May 8, 2009 at 2:58 PM | PERMALINK

if there are any actual democratic war criminals [which i doubt] clean them out too...the gop might claim some collateral damage, but it's their guys' heads that will roll....

Posted by: dj spellchecka on May 8, 2009 at 2:58 PM | PERMALINK

So the investigations will discredit them and the Democrats who were stupid enough to compromise with them?

Uh, ... OK.

Posted by: JM on May 8, 2009 at 3:00 PM | PERMALINK


"Yeah, but that was before the hyper-partisan Democratic moving of the goalposts."

Care to elaborate? Lay your issues out straightforwardly, if you will, sir or ma'am. Then we can talk...

There is NO chance that anyone can move those proverbial sports metaphors better than certain law-shattering members of our collective political classes. This is not a partisan issue, nor is it a policy dispute. Using your word, it is a "craven" disregard for the rule of law, as is your suggestion that this call for justice is "hyper-partisan."

Posted by: Chris C on May 8, 2009 at 3:03 PM | PERMALINK

@ Hogarth on May 8, 2009 at 2:44 PM:
Yes, but that was before the hyper-partisan Democratic moving of the goalposts.
Please note that the Democrats moved the goalposts back to where they'd been before W and his crowd put the goalposts on wheels.

Posted by: Cap'n Chucky on May 8, 2009 at 3:04 PM | PERMALINK

Senator Shelby should be reminded of his conflict of interest here.

If memory serves, on Sept. 27, 2002 Shelby and Bob Graham were both briefed about enhanced interrogation techniques.

Why didn't Shelby make known any problems with the use of waterboarding at that time, before it would be applied 183 times in March 2003? Doesn't that make him as complicit as any other members of Congress and the Clinton administration?

Posted by: AnnoyedWithMedia on May 8, 2009 at 3:15 PM | PERMALINK

No Kevo, you are not alone. I also consider myself a libertarian Republican (albeit for longer than 31 years) and I concur with your evaluation of the current GOP leadership (such as it is). Consistent administration of justice is the lynch pin to democracy for me. I’m furious that the GOP has such contempt for the rule of law. I’m furious that the damn Donkeys (including Obama who I voted for) view the investigation of war crimes as optional or politically inconvenient.

Posted by: Chopin on May 8, 2009 at 3:18 PM | PERMALINK

As my favorite Repug would say "Bring 'em on"! The rule of law is the rule of law...PERIOD.

Posted by: whichwitch on May 8, 2009 at 3:32 PM | PERMALINK

It seems to me the last Democratic president was impeached, and that wasn't even over policy matters.

Posted by: Jamie on May 8, 2009 at 3:38 PM | PERMALINK

There is a huge difference between the crime of the torturer and the crime of someone who didn't rat on the torturer. Even if Pelosi knew exactly what was going on, she was not waterboarding, pretending waterboarding was legal or ordering waterboarding. At worst she is guilty of accessory to torture by negligence.

Got to keep the magnitude of the crimes in sight. Bring on the prosecutions. Yoo, Bybee and Cheney will still be cheeks to the wall when Pelosi is released.

Posted by: charlie on May 8, 2009 at 4:01 PM | PERMALINK

Aimai, Please understand that I think Dumbya and his lackeys were all law breakers, the Constitution being law. As I understand it and I do not pretend to be at all up to date on this, is that Cheny got Yoo, Bybee etc to cock up legal opinions that said it was legal to torture certain folks at least if you did not do it on U.S. soil. These legal opinions were then given to CIA types who carried out the torture after the FBI types wanted no part of it. The CIA types would get no where arguing that they were just following orders if tried by conquering armies--we established that at Nuremburg. I think they would get somewhere in a U.S. court and Obama has let them off the hook and unfortunately I think rightly so because otherwise those folks who we ask to do nasty things will wonder if they can rely on any legal opinions or whether they will be prosecuted whenever there is a change in administration. That leaves the lawyers who I have no doubt are the scum of the earth, but that is sort of a lawyers job. They were told that America is under grave threat can we legally do the things that we have to do to protect America? They came up with some bullsh#t analysis that said we could. Were they wrong? Of course and I have no problem with disbarring the lot of them for being so corrupt and incompetent, but I am not sure that we can prosecute them criminally. That leaves folks like Cheney who wanted to torture. Their defense will be that we asked the lawyers and they said it was okay. Does the whole think stink? Yeah, but what we did to Native Americans stinks, slavery and Jim Crow stank too, McNamara himself said he would have been prosecuted for war crimes for the Dresden bombings if we had lost WWII. Do you think Japan would have gone after Truman for using atomic bombs if it had won? I think we have to restore values and the rule of law in this country, but prosecuting the evil people, who did evil things is very problematic IMHO

Posted by: Terry on May 8, 2009 at 4:15 PM | PERMALINK

Hmm - actually my guess is that Steve and a lot of the commenters are really wrong about this. This is by far, by far, the biggest stumbling block in terms of getting investigations to go forward. If Bill Clinton and his staff didn't face very similar punishments as George Bush and his staff, then the whole exercise would be a total sham that would be even more damaging than no investigation at all. It would then become just another cudgel for partisan warfare.

The sad truth is that torture is a bipartisan affair - I think that's why I'm more into a truth commission kind of setup where we name and shame and pass stronger laws to try and make sure it doesn't happen again. After let's remember that the real fundamental problem is that torture is not reviled by the American people - majorities support the use of torture. What are we going to do about that?

Posted by: reader on May 8, 2009 at 4:15 PM | PERMALINK

This is why we should have a criminal prosecution, with rules of evidence, defense attorneys, and a judge and not a bunch of meaningless commissions
that allow political posturing from both parties.

Then, anyone accused without evidence of specific criminal violations will not be impacted.

And if the republicans have clinton-era officials who are guilty of violating specific laws in the same way, I'd be happy to see them prosecuted. And if there are democrats such as pelosi who end up being shown as part of the conspiracy, as a democrat, I'd be perfectly happy to see them convicted.

Posted by: chris green on May 8, 2009 at 4:30 PM | PERMALINK

"If you investigate alleged crimes committed by guys who play for our team, we'll want to investigate alleged crimes committed by guys on your team, "

Works for me.

Posted by: Jeff In Ohio on May 8, 2009 at 5:10 PM | PERMALINK

"Let the poisons that are buried in the mud hatch out."-from I, Claudius, by Robert Graves

"Let a hundred flowers bloom..."-Mao tse Tung

If members of the Clinton Admin. committed crimes, they deserve prosecution as much as the Bushies.

This is, though, a hollow threat.

Posted by: MR Bill on May 9, 2009 at 2:25 PM | PERMALINK
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