Torture: Obama’s ‘Nixon Pardon’? (I)

torture_02161The national psyche of America, over the past few generations, has been defined less by Presidents, programs or –isms, and more by a succession of seminal events, which traumatized the consciousness of our people:

The assassinations of two Kennedy’s and a King. The unseemly retreat from Vietnam. The resignation of Nixon. And, more importantly, his subsequent pardon.

Presidential pardons are beginning to develop a life of their own. Just when we thought the tabloid history of Clinton’s Presidency might have reached its apex with Monica, along came his weird pardon of Marc Rich, fugitive tax-dodger and oil-sales middleman for Iraq.

Even Bush, at the end, managed to surprise us with some of the folks he did not pardon, including ‘Scooter’ Libby (who, coincidentally, had advised Denise Rich to approach Clinton to pardon her former husband).

Notwithstanding the historical magnitude of the challenges facing President Obama, and the magnificence (yes, I’m biased), and some might add munificence, of his response, could it be that his young Presidency might yet be defined by a decision not to bring legal sanction against any of the players involved in the torture saga?

Would such a decision have the same impact on his chances of re-election, as it did with Ford’s pardon of President Nixon? And might it permanently taint his Presidential legacy?

Contrary to what you might think might be the answer to this impressive build-up, my view is that, even if it costs him the Presidency and his legacy, Obama should stick to his current stance that we admit mistakes, and move on.

Yes, the American people deserve accountability. Certainly, we must prove to the world that we believe in justice. But before I give my opinion on the sort of accountability and justice that might work best, there are other points to consider.

I have been involved in the political process, at the highest level – in the UK. I stress the political process, as distinct from the elective or government processes. I mean, being a part of the machine that, day after day, week after week, year after year, has to consider, warplan, forecast, spin and control the political fall-out of decisions made by political leaders.

It is something I now refuse to be a part of. Why? Because it corrupts. It always corrupts. Not because people are bad, or less good. But because the very nature of the job requires a ‘corruption’ of the thought process.

Your contribution is not what is best, in a given situation, for the country, or a policy, leave alone the world at large. Your job is to decide what is best for the leader you serve. And that viewpoint is always cast on the assumption that what is best for your leader is, in fact, what is best for everyone else.

How can that not be the case? You just spent one, two, six years, whatever, producing scenario after speech after TV ad stating, as Papal Authority, that the nation, the world, and at least half the galaxy depends, for its continued sanity, on electing your man. Not a policy. Your man. Not an Administration. Your man.

Your guy is the Administration. He is the national security. He is the best interest of the nation. Whatever he is. He is all of that.

That is a natural result of being a political operative at the highest level. It is an inevitable consequence. And it requires inhuman effort to resist its seduction. That’s why I now limit my role in the political arena (aside from running for office itself) to the less dangerous waters of political communication.

Now, it is my opinion that, in the highly-charged atmosphere after 9-11, everyone in Government, from Karl Rove to the person who opened the jail cell doors at Guantanamo was, by emotional investment, a political operative. And anything they did should be judged and sanctioned within the context of the political process.

I’ll cut through all the crap that will now undoubtedly occupy our nation’s hungry press for the best part of however long it is to come.

I’ll accept as a given that there were innumerable instances of CIA Officers exceeding the limits of the legal advice given about torture. I’ll accept as a given that those perpetrating such illegal excess knew they were doing it.

I’ll accept that those who gave the legal advice did so in the certain knowledge that the advice was given in bad faith, in the also certain knowledge that the acts supposedly being given legal sanction were, in fact, wholly illegal.

My position remains the same. There should be no legal prosecution. The appropriate forum is not the legal or military one, but the political one.

Every single person who was involved in these activities, legal or illegal, did so with the knowledge that they were carrying out the wishes of their President. Therefore, all of these activities fall within the political process. The buck resides not with the protagonists, but with the President, and with the President alone.

That is a function of working for a President. You don’t blame the operatives. You blame the President, or you blame the system. Or, if you really want to get existential, you blame humanity.

The time for blaming the President was when he was in office. And don’t give me bull that Congress, et al, did not know what was going on. Either they did, in which case they are as much to blame. Or they didn’t, in which case, they need to beef up their investigative techniques, or we need to change the system of checks and balances.

In my opinion, there should be a statute of limitations on actions committed during an Administration, by that Administration. And that statute should end when the Administration is over.

I do not go as far as Nixon and say that an illegal act committed by a President and those who serve him is not illegal. But I do say that the time for bringing charges for the illegality is while the Administration is in office.

We create a boiler-room situation in Presidential operations, where we know there is a better than evens chance operatives are going to step over the line. We then wait until its all over, and then we nab ’em. This is not only unfair. It’s unreal. And it’s going to result in repetition – over and over and over. And what’s more, it’s going to lead to political retaliation when the next lot get into office.

This could result in paralysis in Governmental decision-making, which, for example, in the intelligence or military arenas, could be fatal. No. I say Government operatives are all part of the political process. We nab ’em during their time in office. If we don’t or can’t, then when the political process brings the Adminstration to an end, that also is an end to any witch-hunt.

As to the rest of the world looking for accountability. What about balancing that ambition with concern for those who may watch with horror as we eat our own?

Like it or not, we are the only superpower in the world today. The only true military strong man. Good people, running important allies, look to us for support. Very often, it is that friendship alone which keeps the wolves at bat. Or the absolute certainty, in the minds of those wolves, that we will be steadfast, strong and discrete in our positions.

What happens when we say to the world’s villains, you can count on us to keep you at bay. Well, unless we’re mean, by mistake. When we’ll back off. Or, we think we might have been mean. So, could you hang on, while we have a bit of an investigate to see…oops…you were right, sorry.

Or, even worse. We decide that we need to reveal everything that might have happened. And maybe, inadvertently, we let slip the name of a secret foreign ally. Or, that ally thinks we might slip up?

Balance against the deserved plaudits we might get from the world’s media for being transparent, the sense of trust that we might lose among the leadership of our allies. Allies who might then have to choose compromise with their unacceptable enemies, over a relationship with a now erstwhile champion.

We have a system for electing our leaders to do a job that is pretty clearly defined. We have a system of checks and balances. If it doesn’t work, change it. But when their period of office is over, we don’t second guess the decisions made.

It was a political process that put those leaders in place. It is political process that shapes the context in which decisions are made. It should be the political process that judges those decisions – not a legal process. It should be political sanctions that punish any offenders – not criminal prosecution. And the ultimate political sanction is electoral defeat. The Republicans just suffered that.

Now, that does not mean that is an end to political justice.

President Obama has released documentation. I’m not sure I’m fully in support of voluntarily releasing documents from a previous Administration, but I can see his rationale for so doing coming from a desire to move on expeditiously.

I might now go further, and suggest a Presidential Commission, along the lines of the 9-11 Commission. But only within the proviso that there is to be no prosecution; only revelation, which does not disturb the future functioning of our Government, nor harm our genuine national security interests. Exposure on its own should be the only sanction against wrong-doing.

When I was undertaking the private investigation which led to my book (, I tried on several occasions to make contact with senior levels of British Intelligence.

I wanted them to understand that I appreciated that it might never be possible for the truth of my friend’s death to become public. But I did at least want private and discrete reparation for his family, since my friend had died as a consequence of unofficial actions approved by the then Prime Minister of Great Britain.

There is much that even a Presidential Commission may not be able to publish. But part of its remit could be private recommendations for discrete reparations to injured parties.

Then again, we could even hold our noses, and follow the lead of Gordon Brown and the Northern Ireland, and simply give a set sum to all those who were held or interrogated.

There will be unbelievable pressure on President Obama to give in, and allow sanctions to be brought against acts of the previous Administration.

I believe that if he succumbs, or worse, does a Henry II, and looks the other way, as Knights slay the modern equivalent of Thomas a Becket, then it may seriously damage the ability of future Governments to receive confidential advice, make and execute sensitive policy, and govern effectively. And further, it may do more damage to our standing around the world than the original acts of torture.

Even if it is perceived now as a failing, to be ranked along with Ford’s pardon of Nixon, I believe that history will show that Obama will have made the right decision if he sticks with his first instincts simply to admit mistakes, and move on.

Published in: on April 22, 2009 at 10:23 am  Leave a Comment  

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