Politics & Policy

Obama’s Interrogation Mess

He made it, and now he'll have to bear the consequences.

Obamateur Hour continues.

At Politico, Josh Gerstein and Amie Parnes are reporting that Pres. Barack Obama is now backing away from the idea of an inquiry into the Bush-era enhanced-interrogation tactics — at least insofar as such a probe might be conducted by a 9/11 Commission–style panel or Pat Leahy’s proposed “truth commission.” (The Politico reports are here and here; Jen Rubin, who is closely monitoring developments at Contentions, has observations here.) The president, having started a fire by recklessly releasing memos describing interrogation tactics, and then having poured gasoline on the flames by reversing himself on the banana-republic notion of investigating his political rivals, cannot douse the resulting inferno simply by saying, Oh, never mind.

The president is reeling because he sees his legislative agenda going up in smoke. In his inexperience, he reckoned that his base on the Left would somehow be sated by the mere disclosure of Bush-era methods, coupled with vague assurances that a day of reckoning for Bush administration officials might soon be at hand. His Republican opposition, he further figured, would be cowed by his moral preening on “torture.” This, he concluded, would mean smooth sailing ahead for the more pressing business of nationalizing the economy, starting with the health-care industry.

But as George W. Bush might have warned his successor, anti-American ideologues are emboldened, not mollified, by concessions. The Left doesn’t want Bush officials exposed — they want blood, and anything less than that will be cause for revolt. Simultaneously, Obama has raised the ire of the Right.  In his solipsism, the president failed to foresee that the “torture” memos — memos that, as Rich Lowry shows, in fact document an assiduous effort to avoid torture — would not support his overblown rhetoric or substantiate the allegations of misconduct raised by politicized leaks from the International Committee of the Red Cross. Critics were not cowed. That, combined with Obama’s disingenuous strategy of exposing our tactics while suppressing the trove of intelligence they produced, ensured that the Right would push back aggressively.

So now the president has chaos on his hands and no one but himself to blame for it. From the Left’s perspective, he has validated their war-crimes allegations. You can’t expect to do that and then just say, “never mind.” Senator Leahy was already agitating for an accounting before Obama’s high-wire act, as was the ACLU. Obama opened the door to prosecutions only 48 hours after his chief of staff assured a national television audience that there would be no prosecutions; having proved it can push around the weak-willed president, the Left is not going away.

Neither are Obama’s political opponents on the right. Many of us spent years frustrated by the Bush administration’s failure to defend its national-security policies effectively. President Bush’s determination to do what he thought necessary to protect America, regardless of media carping and the consequent sag in his popularity, was his most endearing trait. But his unshakable conviction that the rightness of his actions would be borne out by history, and that he therefore didn’t need to justify himself, was foolish. Yes, history will be detached, and perhaps more accurate, decades hence, but it starts being written right now. Bush ceded to the Left the narrative-writing for the War on Terror, which is why the public remains in the dark about the intelligence haul from the CIA’s interrogation program for high-level detainees, as well as from the detainees held in Guantanamo Bay, whom antiwar activists have effectively portrayed as hapless shepherds mistakenly plucked from the fields of Afghanistan and shamefully consigned to a “legal black hole.”

However unintentionally, Obama has invited an accounting. Vice President Dick Cheney has lent his still-powerful voice to the push for disclosure of the intelligence produced by the CIA interrogations, and that push is not going away, either. You can’t have an accounting with half the facts — the more important half — missing.

Just as Gitmo was not a due-process experiment, enhanced interrogation was not a Marquis de Sade study in human endurance potential. The goal, and the motivation of those involved in the effort, was to gather intelligence. That doesn’t mean “anything goes” — and the memos elucidate that restraint was an abiding concern. It does mean, though, that the effort can’t be reasonably evaluated without factoring in the obligation of those who took part in it to protect American lives, the dire straits in which they were operating, the encouragement they received from Congress and the public (remember, for example, President Clinton’s endorsement of torture to cull information in an emergency), and, most significant, the yield from the methods that were employed. If President Obama really thinks he can dance away unscathed after making a little feel-good mayhem for his side by telling only half of the story, he is mistaken.

Obama’s apparent retreat on the notion of an investigation by an independent, bipartisan panel does not retract his more explosive proposition of kicking the matter over to the Justice Department. The “truth commission” idea is bad, but the prosecution idea is — by orders of magnitude — worse. And unlike the case of a congressional commission, it’s also within Obama’s power to pull the plug on a criminal investigation. Instead, he’s entrusting the matter to Attorney General Eric Holder, who responded to his boss’s abrupt turnabout by boldly promising to “follow the evidence wherever it takes us” –because, as he and Obama mindlessly repeat, “no one is above the law.”

This underscores that it is, indeed, amateur hour. While no one is above the law, the law often is not enforced. As law-enforcement professionals will tell you, we don’t always follow the evidence wherever it takes us. If a defendant commits perjury at his trial, for example, we don’t investigate his lawyer, even though the lawyer elicited, and may well have encouraged, the false testimony. The bedrock of our system is prosecutorial discretion. How we use the government’s scarce resources is not a legal judgment but a political one that the president is elected to make, with the help of an attorney general expected to have the maturity the task demands. We don’t just “follow the evidence” — we expect that we’ve put adults in charge to decide which evidence gets followed.

Obama and Holder can’t pretend that this is not their decision to make, that the “rule of law” is a train on which they are mere passengers. At issue here is a matter of policy, not evidence: In the United States of America, should the victor in a presidential election use the enormous powers of his office to investigate and prosecute his political adversaries, and thereby begin a cycle of retribution in which policy disputes will henceforth be criminalized?

That is exactly what the Left wants. We, on the contrary, believe it would tear the country asunder, in addition to re-establishing the ethos of risk-aversion that invited 9/11. President Obama could have let sleeping dogs lie. Instead, he stirred both sides to battle stations. Now he will have to decide, and bear the consequences.


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