Friday, June 05, 2009

Not In His Own Interest

Perhaps it is a reflection of the sentiment of a President who is unfailingly practical and has stated "generally speaking, I'm more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards."

Perhaps it is because it would undermine the perception of bipartisanship/non-partisanship of the President, who has said "If and when there needs to be a fuller accounting of what took place during this period, I think for Congress to examine ways that it can be done in a bipartisan fashion, outside of the typical hearing process that can sometimes break down and break entirely along party lines...."

Or maybe it's a sense of the opposition of the American people. No, as this poll indicates, the citizens of our nation want the truth revealed.

But the coolness of President Barack Obama to the excesses of the Bush Administration, drunk on the privileges of power, to any kind of "truth" or "truth and reconciliation" commission, is hard to fathom. But maybe not anymore.

An editorial which ran on June 1 in The Washington Post, though not addressing that issue, inadvertently reveals a clue:

The Justice Department filed notice Thursday of its intention to challenge in the Supreme Court a New York federal appeals court ruling that ordered the administration to make public photographs allegedly depicting the abuse of terrorism suspects in U.S. custody. The American Civil Liberties Union had filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) suit to force their disclosure. (The Washington Post Co. filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the ACLU.) At the same time, the Justice Department alerted the court that a formal appeal by the June 9 deadline may be unnecessary if Congress quickly passes the Detainee Photographic Records Protection Act of 2009. The department also asked Friday that the deadline be extended to July 9.

The measure, supported by the White House and passed May 21 as an attachment to a Senate funding bill, would put beyond the reach of FOIA any photographs taken between Sept. 11, 2001, and Jan. 22, 2009, "relating to the treatment of individuals engaged, captured, or detained after September 11, 2001, by the Armed Forces of the United States in operations outside of the United States" that the defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have determined would endanger military personnel if released.

There is an apparent inconsistency in Obama's support for this measure, sponsored by Senators Lieberman (I-D- Conn.) and Graham (R.- So. Carolina). The White House's website proclaims "President Obama has committed to making his administration the most open and transparent in history" and the Post's editors note "Mr. Obama runs the risk of taking two steps back in his quest for more open government."

The action by the Administration, by way of the Justice Department, for this outrageous effort to abrogate the Freedom of Information Act is of a piece with Senator Obama's support for reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. (Note the apparent bewilderment here over the Senator's apparent support for illegal spying.) Glenn Greenwald explains the parallelism between the two congressional measures (and the Military Commisssions Act of 2006) supported by Barack Obama by pointing out opposition to permitting release of the torture photographs part of a broader trend whereby the Government simply retroactively changes the law whenever it decides it does not want to abide by it. For decades, we had laws in place authorizing citizens to sue their telecommunication carriers if the telecoms allowed government spying on their communications in violation of the law, but when it was revealed that the telecoms did exactly this, the Congress simply changed the law retroactively so that it no longer applied. For decades, we had laws imposing civil and criminal liability on government officials who engaged in or authorized torture, but when it was revealed that our government did that, the Congress just retroactively changed the law to protect the torturers. And now that courts have ruled that our decades-old transparency law compels disclosure of this torture evidence, the Congress is just going to retroactively change the law -- again -- this time to empower the President to suppress that evidence anyway.

However, there is something additional that binds Barack Obama's support for FISA reauthorization, suppression of photographic evidence of misdeeds of the U.S. government, and opposition to a commission which might reveal abuses by the previous presidential regime. It is support for Executive authority- extreme and unprecedented presidential power.

Nuanced, thoughtful, and deliberative as he might be, Barack Obama is no hypocrite. He could support transparency and a revelatory look into Bush Administration torture, spying, and/or political exploitation of the Justice Department. But it would hardly be consistent, or perhaps even fair-minded, to do so while arrogating to yourself authority and power President George W. Bush didn't dare assume, but would have loved to have.

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