Given the clarity of this law [Article 2 of the Convention Against Torture] and its multiple reiterations, what can explain the resolve of the political and media class to ignore it? Why do ostensibly adverse factions leap to one another’s defense even in cases of egregious criminality, with Democrats shielding Republicans, media figures demanding no transparency or accountability for political officials, self-proclaimed populist politicians devoting themselves to the protection of Wall Street? One easy answer is that those factions are not really adversaries, at least not in any way that counts. All their members belong to the same class — the powerful and the elite — and thus are motivated, as discussed, to defend an immunity that they might one day need themselves.
But the unanimous support for Bush-era war criminals is motivated by more than just shared self-interest; it has at least as much to do with shared guilt. Bush officials did not commit their crimes by themselves. Virtually the entire Washington establishment supported or at least enabled the lawbreaking.
Leading members of the Democratic Party were implicated in various ways. In July 2008, the reporter Jane Mayer was asked in a Harper’s interview why there was so little push by Democrats — the “opposition party” — for investigations into Bush programs of torture, warrantless eavesdropping, and the like. She pointed out that one “complicating factor is that key members of Congress sanctioned [these activities], so many of those who might ordinarily be counted on to lead the charge are themselves compromised.”
Indeed, key congressional Democrats were contemporaneously briefed on what the Bush administration was doing, albeit often in vague and unspecific ways. The fact that they did nothing to stop the illegal plans, and often explicitly approved of them, obviously gives leading Democratic officials an incentive to block any investigations or judicial proceedings. In December 2007, the Washington Post reported that back in 2002 the CIA had briefed a bipartisan group of congresspeople on its use of waterboarding and other torture tactics. That group included the ranking members of both the Senate and House intelligence committees: Jay Rockefeller and Nancy Pelosi. Yet, reported the Post, “no objections were raised. Instead, at least two lawmakers in the room asked the CIA to push harder.”
Similarly, several leading Democrats, including Rockefeller and Representative Jane Harman, were told that the Bush administration was eavesdropping on Americans without warrants. Rockefeller did nothing to stop it, and Harman actually became the administration’s leading defender: after the illegal program was revealed by the New York Times, she publicly stated that the wiretapping was “both necessary and legal.” Two years after he coauthored the story revealing the Bush NSA program, New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau revealed that Harman had attempted to convince him not to write about the program on the ground that it was so vital. Appearing on MSNBC in June 2008, the law professor Jonathan Turley pointed out the logical result of this bipartisan support for the crimes.
There’s no question in my mind that there is an obvious level of collusion here. We now know that the Democratic leadership knew about the illegal surveillance program almost from its inception. Even when they were campaigning about fighting for civil liberties, they were aware of an unlawful surveillance program as well as a torture program. And ever since that came out, the Democrats have been silently trying to kill any effort to hold anyone accountable because that list could very well include some of their own members.
As Mayer put it, “Figures in both parties would find it very hard at this point to point the finger at the White House, without also implicating themselves.”
The opinion-making elites were similarly implicated. Very few media figures with any significant platform can point to anything they did or said to oppose the lawbreaking — and they know that. Indeed, some of the nation’s most prominent so-called liberal commentators vocally supported Bush’s policies. It was Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter who became the first establishment media figure to openly advocate torturing prisoners: his November 4, 2001, Newsweek column (headlined “Time to Think About Torture”) began by proclaiming that “in this autumn of anger, even a liberal can find his thoughts turning to … torture” and went on to suggest “transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies.” It was Alan Dershowitz who argued for the creation of “torture warrants,” proposing for cases such as the proverbial “ticking time bomb” that “judicially monitored physical measures designed to cause excruciating pain” should be made “part of our legal system.” It was the writers of the Washington Post editorial page who hailed the Military Commissions Act — the single most repressive law enacted during the Bush era, crucial parts of which the Supreme Court ultimately struck down as unconstitutional — as a “remarkably good bill” that “balances profound and difficult interests thoughtfully and with considerable respect both for the uniqueness of the current conflict and for the American tradition of fair trials and due process.”
When it comes to media figures who cheered on Bush’s lawlessness and then self-servingly demanded that there be no investigations, the Washington Post’s David Broder is a particularly illustrative case. In April 2009, he wrote a columndramatically denouncing the Bush presidency as “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.” Despite this acknowledgment, Broder in the same column opposed any criminal investigations of the Bush torture regime, proclaiming Obama “right to declare that there should be no prosecution of those who carried out what had been the policy of the United States government.”
Given Broder’s acknowledgment of how horrific Bush’s presidency had been, what explains his simultaneous opposition to investigations? The answer is clear. Like most of his journalistic colleagues, the dean of the Washington press corps never sounded the alarm while this lawlessness was taking place, when it mattered. He did the opposite, repeatedly mocking those who warned of how radical and dangerous the Bush administration was. As torture went on, he continuously defended what Bush officials were doing as perfectly normal and well within the bounds of legitimate policy.
After the 2004 election, for example, Broder dismissed those who were arguing that Bush and Cheney had succeeded in entrenching presidential lawlessness. “Checks and balances are still there,” he insisted. “The nation does not face ‘another dark age,’ unless you consider politics with all its tradeoffs and bargaining a black art.” In 2006, he derided those who warned that the “war on terror” had ushered in an era of extreme lawlessness by sarcastically proclaiming, “I’d like to assure you that Washington is calm and quiet this morning, and democracy still lives here,” and then denouncing Bush critics “who get carried away by their own rhetoric.” Broder’s 2009 recognition that the Bush presidency was “one of the darkest chapters of American history” came, of course, with no acknowledgment of his 2004 declaration that “the nation does not face ‘another dark age.’”
So when these media and political elites are defending Bush officials, minimizing their crimes, and arguing that no one should be held accountable, they’re actually defending themselves as well. Just as Jane Harman and Jay Rockefeller can’t possibly demand investigations for actions in which they were complicit, media stars can’t possibly condemn acts that they supported or toward which, at the very best, they turned a blissfully blind eye. Bush officials must be exonerated, or at least have their crimes forgotten — look to the future and ignore the past, the journalists all chime in unison — so that their own involvement might also be overlooked.
In this world, it is perfectly fine to say that a president is inept or even somewhat corrupt. A titillating, tawdry sex scandal, such as the Bill Clinton brouhaha, can be fun, even desirable as a way of keeping entertainment levels high. Such revelations are all just part of the political cycle. But to acknowledge that our highest political officials are felons (which is what people are, by definition, who break our laws) or war criminals (which is what people are, by definition, who violate the laws of war) is to threaten the system of power, and that is unthinkable. Above all else, media figures are desperate to maintain the current power structure, as it is their role within it that provides them with prominence, wealth, and self-esteem. Their prime mandate then becomes protecting and defending Washington, which means attacking anyone who would dare suggest that the government has been criminal at its core.
The members of the political and media establishment do not join forces against the investigations and prosecutions because they believe that nothing bad was done. On the contrary, they resist accountability precisely because they know there was serious wrongdoing — and they know they bear part of the culpability for it. The consensus mantra that the only thing that matters is to “make sure it never happens again” is simply the standard cry of every criminal desperate for escape: I promise not to do it again if you don’t punish me this time. And the Beltway battle cry of “look to the future, not the past!” is what all political power systems tell their subjects to do when they want to flush their own crimes down the memory hole.
In the long run, immunity from legal accountability ensures that criminality and corruption will continue. Vesting the powerful with license to break the law guarantees high-level lawbreaking; indeed, it encourages such behavior. One need only look at what’s happened in the United States over the last decade to see the proof.