Nostalgia for Bush/Cheney radicalism
By Glenn Greenwald
As has been voluminously documented here, one of the most notable aspects of the first year of the Obama presidency has been how many previously controversial Bush/Cheney policies in the terrorism and civil liberties realms have been embraced. Even Obama's most loyal defenders often acknowledge that, as Michael Tomasky recently put it, "the civil liberties area has been [Obama's] worst. This is the one area in which the president's actions don't remotely match the candidate's promises." From indefinite detention and renditions to denial of habeas rights, from military commissions and secrecy obsessions to state secrets abuses, many of the defining Bush/Cheney policies continue unabated under its successor administration.
Despite all that, there is substantial political pressure from all directions for Obama to reverse the very few decisions where he actually deviated from Bush/Cheney radicalism in these areas. In the wake of extreme political pressure, mostly from Democrats, the White House just forced Eric Holder to retreat on his decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York City, and numerous Democrats now appear prepared to join with the GOP to cut-off funding for civilian trials altogether, forcing the administration to try all Terrorists in military commissions or just hold them indefinitely. The administration has created a warped multi-tiered justice system where only a select few even get civilian trials -- those whom they know in advance they can convict -- yet there are growing signs that the President will abandon even that symbolic, piecemeal nod to due process.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post is publishing demands from former Bush CIA and NSA Chief Michael Hayden -- who presided over the blatantly criminal warrantless eavesdropping program -- that Obama must even more closely model his Terrorism policies on Bush's, as though the architects of Bush's illegal policies are our Guiding Lights when deciding what to do now. Even Obama's own top intelligence official criticized the Justice Department's decision to treat Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as what he is -- a criminal -- and accord him normal due process. And an internal Justice Department investigation which -- under Bush -- had concluded that John Yoo and Jay Bybee committed ethical violations in their authoring of the "torture memos" and should be investigated by their state bars has now, under Obama, reportedly been changed -- whitewashed -- to conclude that they acted appropriately (even if their written opinions exhibited "poor judgment").
In sum, there is clearly a bipartisan and institutional craving for a revival (more accurately: ongoing preservation) of the core premise of Bush/Cheney radicalism: that because we're "at war" with Terrorists, our standard precepts of justice and due process do not apply and, indeed, must be violated. To relieve ourselves of guilt and of the bad lingering taste left from having such discredited and unpopular leadership for eight years, we collectively pretended for a little while to regret the excesses of the Bush/Cheney approach to such matters. But it's now crystal clear that the country, especially its ruling elite, is either too petrified of Terrorism and/or too enamored of the powers which that fear enables to accept any real changes from the policies that were supposedly such a profound violation "of our values." One can only marvel at the consensus outrage generated by the mere notion that we charge people with crimes and give them trials if we want to lock them in a cage for life. Indeed, what was once the most basic and defining American principle -- the State must charge someone with a crime and give them a fair trial in order to imprison them -- has been magically transformed into Leftist extremism.
To see how radical our establishment consensus in this area has become, just consider two facts. First, look at the Terrorism policies of what had previously been the most right-wing administration in America's history: the Reagan administration. In this post yesterday, Larry Johnson does quite a good job of documenting how Terrorism by Islamic radicals had been a greater problem in the 1980s than it is now. There was the 1983 bombing of our Marine barracks in Lebanon, a 1982 and 1984 bombing of Jewish sites in Argentina, numerous plane hijackings, the blowing up of a Pan Am jet, the Achille Lauro seizure, and what the State Department called "a host of spectacular, publicity-grabbing events that ultimately ended in coldblooded murder" (many masterminded by Abu Nidal).
Despite that, read the official policy of the Reagan Administration when it came to treating Terrorists, as articulated by the top Reagan State Department official in charge of Terrorism policies, L. Paul Bremer, in a speech he entitled "Counter-Terrorism: Strategies and Tactics:"
Another important measure we have developed in our overall strategy is applying the rule of law to terrorists. Terrorists are criminals. They commit criminal actions like murder, kidnapping, and arson, and countries have laws to punish criminals. So a major element of our strategy has been to delegitimize terrorists, to get society to see them for what they are -- criminals -- and to use democracy’s most potent tool, the rule of law against them.
It was also Ronald Reagan who signed the Convention Against Torture in 1988 -- after many years of countless, horrific Terrorist attacks -- which not only declared that there are "no exceptional circumstances whatsoever" justifying torture, but also required all signatory countries to "ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law" and -- and Reagan put it -- "either to prosecute torturers who are found in its territory or to extradite them to other countries for prosecution." And, of course, even George W. Bush -- at the height of 9/11-induced Terrorism hysteria -- charged attempted shoe bomber Richard Reid with actual crimes and processed him through our civilian courts.
How much clearer evidence can there be of how warped and extremist we've become on these matters? The express policies of the right-wing Ronald Reagan -- "applying the rule of law to terrorists"; delegitimizing Terrorists by treating them as "criminals"; and compelling the criminal prosecution of those who authorize torture -- are now considered on the Leftist fringe. Merely advocating what Reagan explicitly adopted as his policy -- "to use democracy’s most potent tool, the rule of law against" Terrorists -- is now the exclusive province of civil liberties extremists. In those rare cases when Obama does what Reagan's policy demanded in all instances and what even Bush did at times -- namely, trials and due process for accused Terrorists -- he is attacked as being "Soft on Terror" by Democrats and Republicans alike. And the mere notion that we should prosecute torturers (as Reagan bound the U.S. to do) -- or even hold them accountable in ways short of criminal proceedings -- is now the hallmark of a Far Leftist Purist. That's how far we've fallen, how extremist our political consensus has become.
To Read the rest of the article and access hyperlinks