About Those Memos

By , 27 April, 2009, No Comment

I’ve waited on the sidelines a few days, but I now feel it’s time to dive into the torture memos debate. Here’s what stands out to me: as Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff reports, there was a divide within Obama-land about how much info to release and what to do with it. Ultimately, as Eric Holder explained to the President, there was no choice, since the ACLU Freedom of Info Act suit forced the release, but in the lead-up, CIA director Leon Panetta was arguing the other side, asking the President not to expose the agency to public censure and if he did, to promise not to investigate those who “followed” orders.

Why would Panetta be so worried about this? Because, as Isikoff argued on MSNBC’s Hardball, he is a newbie to the agency who does not have credibility with the career employees who were involved in, but not politically committed to, the Bush agenda. In other words, someone from WITHIN the CIA might have been more able to lead the agency through public scrutiny with grace, counterintuitive as that sounds. This is precisely the kind of problem I had in mind when I critiqued his appointment to the post.

President Obama listened to the law, but I have some qualms with his decision to “look forward,” not backward when it comes to investigating those involved in the torturous practices. Not only because I agree with Keith Olbermann that un-investigated practices could remain as precedent, but also because I don’t completely buy into the assumptions that drive Obama’s decision. Basically, the Obama administration reflects a rising tide in 21st century liberal thought that idealizes the power of transparency. So long as the government comes clean, this argument runs, these practices can’t ever happen again, because the public won’t let them. Implicit in this argument is the notion that somehow the public did not know, and therefore could not protest, what was happening before.

That’s naïve: we didn’t have confirmation before, but you’d have to have been living under a rock not to have seen or heard discussion of these practices over the last 7 years. Moreover, full awareness of government misconduct never worked as a powerful enough check before. The law (an institution) exists to achieve the kind of justice that public opinion, even at its moral best, cannot enforce. Once again, the faith in public opinion (the morality of individuals) is just insufficient.

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