Thankfully, President Barack Obama has begun restoring our severely tarnished reputation. Early in his presidency he prohibited the illegal torture techniques that were sanctioned by the Bush/Cheney administration, and he ordered the eventual closing of our prison at Guantanamo. Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced the trial of five alleged terrorists accused of involvement in the 9/11 criminal conspiracy (eight years after the atrocity). Appropriately, the trial will be held in a federal civilian court in New York City. Hopefully, we will soon see an end to all of Bush-Cheney’s open-ended incarcerations without charges or trials. That policy violated our traditions dating back to the Magna Charta of 1215 and our own Constitution, which guarantees the writ of habeas corpus and a speedy trial.
However, we need to do more. While insisting that his administration won’t violate the Constitution and international treaties, President Obama has done nothing to ensure that these immoral, unethical, counterproductive, and criminal activities won’t be resurrected when the next Bush/Cheney-type administration comes to power. Although prosecutions are not necessary, we need to know why any of the instigators and violators believed that the president was above the law.
Investigations need to be continued by the Congress, the CIA, and the justice department. We must insist on a thorough study and full disclosures. Laws must be passed to prevent the USA from ever lowering itself into officially sanctioning this kind of behavior ever again. Future presidents must be put on notice. The despicable concept that we must use the methods of the enemy to defeat the enemy simply means that neither one of us can claim the moral high ground. As Secretary of the Treasury C. Douglas Dillon said during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, “We have to remember who we are.”
We can understand why President Obama has been reluctant to investigate those who authorized the use of torture or those who followed orders and personally committed barbarous acts. Democrats in general don’t have that revengeful spirit so typical of the Republican Party. Mr. Obama, himself, seems to have that Clintonesque characteristic of wanting to be liked by everybody, even when (like Bill Clinton) many people are going to hate him for no other reason than he exists. Regardless, a sense of justice demands action.
Mr. Obama has been particularly protective of CIA agents who committed the acts of torture, even though the USA has been historically unsympathetic to those who “just followed orders”: after our Civil War, there was the trial of the Confederate commander of the Andersonville prison; after World War II, there were the Nuremburg, Germany, trials of Nazi accomplices to the systematic murder of 12 million innocent people; also after WWII, there were the trials of Japanese war criminals (when we executed those convicted of water boarding, a torture procedure that Dick Cheney seems particularly fond of).
To some of my friends, I somewhat facetiously defended Obama’s reluctance to investigate the CIA’s role in the Bush-Cheney policy. Based on CIA assurances in 1961, President John F. Kennedy approved the Eisenhower administration’s CIA plan to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, an act that was supposed to provoke an internal uprising that would overthrow Fidel Castro. It was a disaster. After learning that virtually nothing the CIA had told him about the operation was true, Kennedy made the mistake of saying, “I wish I could tear up the CIA and throw it to the winds.”
After that, JFK had a major house cleaning at the top of the CIA, but his relationship with the CIA was strained. Nor was JFK ever again completely confident of what the CIA told him. JFK did support the CIA’s coup to overthrow the South Vietnamese president Diem: Kennedy probably hoped to replace him with someone who might institute land reforms that would give the government some popular support. But when the CIA told him that Diem had committed suicide, JFK didn’t believe it. Diem may have been an incompetent president, but he was a devout Catholic. JFK believed Diem would never have taken his own life.
Some conspiracy theorists have included unspecified CIA agents as among the large, diverse group who hated JFK and who may have been involved in his assassination. Of course, there is probably nothing to it, but how could anyone with Lee Harvey Oswald’s known, suspicious background have been allowed anywhere near Kennedy without being under close surveillance? Regardless, whether or not Mr. Obama has been thinking about this, no president wants to raise the ire of the CIA. He needs the CIA on his side.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney and his staff (Scooter Libby, David Addington, Douglas Feith, et al.) are probably the only members of an executive branch that were ever feared by the CIA. They even got then-CIA director George Tenet to change the CIA’s assessment of Iraq’s potential of having weapons of mass destruction to support the Bush-Cheney position. Amazingly, only Scooter Libby has been held accountable for the lies that got us into Iraq – but not directly.
Libby had lied to investigators who were trying to find out who blew the cover of Valerie Plame, a CIA agent for twenty years. Her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, had exposed part of the Bush-Cheney hoax when he wrote a New York Times op-ed piece. Wilson made it clear that President Bush was well aware that Iraq had not been trying to obtain uranium yellow cake from Niger as he had claimed. Ms. Plame had been a vital deep-cover agent in acquiring information about Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions. Also, her exposure as a CIA agent certainly jeopardized her numerous contacts. This was a clear warning by the administration as to what would happen to other whistleblowers.
(I understand that some people oppose the justice department’s investigation of CIA abuses – remember, the FBI refused to participate in those “enhanced” interrogation techniques. Some have claimed that these torturers were our deep-cover spies who operate under various respectable professions in foreign countries. No, agents like Ms. Plame could never do that. That’s not their job; and if they did, it would blow their cover. Anyone to whom they exposed their true identity would probably have to be murdered.)
Once again, it is both amusing and troubling that the same people who object to investigating CIA operatives who engaged in reprehensible interrogation practices never objected to the vindictive Bush-Cheney staff’s destroying the career of Valerie Plame. Hardly anyone complaining now ever cared that Bush-Cheney had deliberately exposed one of our most effective spies in the Middle East. Where were these people when we really needed them?
by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published November 27, 2009, in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.