David Broder

Stop the search for scapegoats

WASHINGTON — If ever there is a time for President Barack Obama to trust his instincts and stick to his guns, that time is now, when he is being pressured to change his mind about closing the books on the "torture" policies of the past.

Obama, to his credit, has ended one of the darkest chapters of American history, when certain terrorist suspects were whisked off to secret prisons and subjected to waterboarding and other forms of painful coercion in hopes of extracting information about threats to the United States.

He was right to do this. But he was just as right to declare that there should be no prosecution of those who carried out what had been the policy of the U.S. government. And he was right, when he sent out his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, to declare that the same amnesty should apply to the lawyers and bureaucrats who devised and justified the Bush administration practices.

But now Obama is being lobbied by politicians and voters who want something more — the humiliation and/or punishment of those responsible for the policies of the past. They are looking for individual scalps — or, at least, careers and reputations.

Their argument is that without identifying and punishing the perpetrators, there can be no accountability — and therefore no deterrent lesson for future administrations. It is a plausible-sounding rationale, but it cloaks an unworthy desire for vengeance.

Obama has opposed even the blandest form of investigation, a so-called truth commission, and has shown himself willing to confront this kind of populist anger. When the grass roots was stirred by the desire for vengeance against the AIG officers who received contractual bonuses from government bailout funds, Obama bought time by questioning the tactic. Quickly the patently unconstitutional 90 percent tax the House wanted to slap on those bonuses was forgotten.

The torture issue is much more serious, and Obama needs to take it on himself, as he started to do — not pass the buck to Attorney General Eric Holder, as he seemed to be suggesting in his later statements on the issue.

Obama is being blamed by some for unleashing the furies with his decision to override the objections of past and current national intelligence officials and release four highly sensitive memos detailing the methods that were used on some "high-value" detainees.

Again, he was right to do so, because these policies were carried out in the name of the American people, and it is only just that we the people confront what we did. Squeamishness is not justified in this case.

But having vowed to end the practices, Obama should use all the influence of his office to stop the retroactive search for scapegoats.

This is not another 9/11 situation, when nearly 3,000 Americans were killed. We had to investigate the flawed performances and gaps in the system, and make the necessary repairs to reduce the chances of a deadly repetition.

The torture memos represented a deliberate, and internally well-debated, policy decision, made in the proper places — the White House, the intelligence agencies and the Justice Department — by the proper officials.

One administration later, a different group of individuals occupying the same offices have — thankfully — made the opposite decision. Do they now go back and investigate or indict their predecessors?

That way, inevitably, lies endless political warfare. It would set the precedent for turning all future policy disagreements into political or criminal vendettas. That way lies untold bitterness — and injustice.

Suppose that Obama backs down and Holder or someone else starts hauling Bush administration lawyers and operatives into hearings and courtrooms.

Suppose the investigators decide the country does not want to see the former president and vice president in the dock. Then underlings pay the price while big shots go free. But at some point, if he is at all a man of honor, George W. Bush would feel bound to say: That was my policy. I was the president. If you want to indict anyone for it, indict me.

Is that where we want to go? I don't think so. Obama can prevent it by sticking to his guns.

David Broder's e-mail address is davidbroder@washpost.com.

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Stop the search for scapegoats 04/25/09 [Last modified: Sunday, April 26, 2009 2:02am]

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