Reassessing the political realities

From a debate between Glenn Greenwald and Chuck Todd:

GG: Let me ask you about that, then. If a president can find, as a president always will be able to find, some low-level functionary in the Justice Department — a John Yoo — to write a memo authorizing whatever it is the president wants to do, and to say that it’s legal, then you think the president ought to be immune from prosecution whenever he breaks the law, as long as he has a permission slip from the Justice Department?  I mean, that’s the argument that’s being made.  Don’t you think that’s extremely dangerous?

CT: That could be dangerous, but let me tell you this: Is it healthy for our reputation around the world – and this I think is that we have TO do what other countries do more often than not, so-called democracies that struggle with their democracy, and sit there and always PUT the previous administration on trial – you don’t think that we start having retributions on this going forward?

Look, I am no way excusing torture. I’m not excusing torture, and I bristle at the attack when it comes on this specific issue.  But I think the political reality in this, and, I understand where you’re coming from, you’re just saying, just because something’s politically tough doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.  That’s, I don’t disagree with you from 30,000 feet.  And that is an idealistic view of this thing.  Then you have the realistic view of how this town works, and what would happen, and is it good for our reputation around the world if we’re essentially putting on trial the previous administration? We would look at another country doing that, and say, geez, boy, this is–

GG: So what do you think happens – I think what has destroyed our reputation is announcing to the world that we tolerate torture, and telling the world we don’t —

CT: We have elections, we also had an election where this was an issue. A new president, who came in there, and has said, we’re not going to torture, we’re going to do this, and we’re going to do this–

GG: What do you think should happen when presidents–

CT: Is that not enough? Isn’t that enough?

This conception of “democracy” by someone in a high position in the media is as revealing as it is typical.  Elections are not just a necessary condition for democracy, they’re sufficient.  Elections are democracy.  Gore Vidal has been calling attention to this state of affairs for decades:

In 1972, I begin: “According to the polls, our second principal concern today is the breakdown of law and order.” (What, I wonder, was the first? Let’s hope it was the pointless, seven-year–at that point–war in Southeast Asia.) I noted that to those die-hard conservatives, “law and order” is usually a code phrase meaning “get the blacks.” While, to what anorexic, vacant-eyed blonde women on TV now describe as the “liberal elite,” we were pushing the careful–that is, slow–elimination of poverty. Anything more substantive would have been regarded as communism, put forward by dupes. But then, I say very mildly, we have only one political party in the United States, the Property Party, with two right wings, Republican and Democrat. Since I tended to speak to conservative audiences in such civilized places as Medford, Oregon; Parkersburg,West Virginia; and Longview, Washington, there are, predictably, a few gasps at this rejection of so much received opinion. There are also quite a few nods from interested citizens who find it difficult at election time to tell the parties apart. Was it in pristine Medford that I actually saw the nodding Ralph Nader whom I was, to his horror, to run for President that year in Esquire? Inspired by the nods, I start to geld the lily, as the late Sam Goldwyn used to say. The Republicans are often more doctrinaire than the Democrats, who are willing to make small–very small–adjustments where the poor and black are concerned while giving aid and comfort to the anti-imperialists. Yes, I was already characterizing our crazed adventure in Vietnam as imperial, instead of yet another proof of our irrepressible, invincible altruism, ever eager to bring light to those who dwell in darkness.

As a side note, that little adventure had been started by JFK, LBJ simply escalated it.  Nixon, the last to arrive at the party, escalated it even further before finally bringing it to a close.  The whole affair, just like Afghanistan and Iraq today, were extremely bipartisan affairs.  The notion that has been put forward that the Democratic party was opposed to the Iraq invasion in particular is extremely dishonest.

Which brings me back to Chuck Todd: “Is it healthy for our reputation around the world – and this I think is that we have TO do what other countries do more often than not, so-called democracies that struggle with their democracy, and sit there and always PUT the previous administration on trial – you don’t think that we start having retributions on this going forward?”   The examples of “retributions” that come to mind are the trials of the former members Central and South American junta regimes for things like forced disappearances, which are condemned by many “so-called democracies” but for which the United States offers bipartisan support:

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration will continue the Bush administration’s practice of sending terrorism suspects to third countries for detention and interrogation, but pledges to closely monitor their treatment to ensure that they are not tortured, administration officials said Monday.

Human rights advocates condemned the decision, saying that continuing the practice, known as rendition, would still allow the transfer of prisoners to countries with a history of torture. They said that promises from other countries of humane treatment, called “diplomatic assurances,” were no protection against abuse.

“It is extremely disappointing that the Obama administration is continuing the Bush administration practice of relying on diplomatic assurances, which have been proven completely ineffective in preventing torture,” said Amrit Singh, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, who tracked rendition cases under President George W. Bush.

His insistence that he was “not excusing torture” is ironic because his indignation when confronted with the possibility that it would be the consequence of his actions was certainly genuine.  Mark Danner, one of the few reputable mainstream journalists to take this issue seriously, wrote a brilliant essay on those consequences:

Scandal is our growth industry. Revelation of wrongdoing leads not to definitive investigation, punishment, and expiation but to more scandal. Permanent scandal. Frozen scandal. The weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist. The torture of detainees who remain forever detained. The firing of prosecutors which is forever investigated. These and other frozen scandals metastasize, ramify, self-replicate, clogging the cable news shows and the blogosphere and the bookstores. The titillating story that never ends, the pundit gabfest that never ceases, the gift that never stops giving: what is indestructible, irresolvable, unexpiatable is too valuable not to be made into a source of profit. Scandal, unpurged and unresolved, transcends political reality to become commercial fact.

But the “political reality” is that the arcana imperii, those critically important state secrets, have been stripped away and their purpose has been laid bare for all to see.  The issue here isn’t ambiguity, it’s clarity where those who continually insist that their status is justified by their responsibility and integrity are afraid to look.

Jason Leopold reports,

Now, in a sworn declaration obtained exclusively by Truthout, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell during George W. Bush’s first term in office, said he would be willing to state, under penalty of perjury, what top Bush officials knew and when they knew it.

He claims that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and others knew the “vast majority” of prisoners captured in the so-called War on Terror were innocent and the administration refused to set them free once those facts were established because of the political repercussions that would have ensued.

“By late August 2002, I found that of the initial 742 detainees that had arrived at Guantánamo, the majority of them had never seen a US soldier in the process of their initial detention and their captivity had not been subjected to any meaningful review,” Wilkerson’s declaration says. “Secretary Powell was also trying to bring pressure to bear regarding a number of specific detentions because children as young as 12 and 13 and elderly as old as 92 or 93 had been shipped to Guantánamo. By that time, I also understood that the deliberate choice to send detainees to Guantánamo was an attempt to place them outside the jurisdiction of the US legal system.”

He added that it became “more and more clear many of the men were innocent, or at a minimum their guilt was impossible to determine let alone prove in any court of law, civilian or military.”

For Cheney and Rumsfeld, and “others,” Wilkerson said, “the primary issue was to gain more intelligence as quickly as possible, both on Al Qaeda and its current and future plans and operations but increasingly also, in 2002-2003, on contacts between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s intelligence and secret police forces in Iraq.”

“Their view was that innocent people languishing in Guantánamo for years was justified by the broader war on terror and the capture of the small number of terrorists who were responsible for the September 11 attacks, or other acts of terrorism,” Wilkerson added. “Moreover, their detention was deemed acceptable if it led to a more complete and satisfactory intelligence picture with regard to Iraq, thus justifying the Administration’s plans for war with that country.”

Documents have been released over the past year that showed how in 2002 several high-value detainees were tortured and forced to make statements that linked Iraq to al-Qaeda and 9/11, which the Bush administration cited as intelligence to support its invasion of the country in March 2003. But the confessions were utterly false.

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