Thus far, Former President George W. Bush has kept out of the fray. But this week, several prominent members of Dubya's administration harshly criticized the Justice Department's decision to probe alleged CIA interrogation abuses – at the same time calling into question the national security credentials of President Barack Obama.
As Monitor staffer Warren Richey noted yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder has authorized special prosecutor John Durham to look at whether government officials violated the law through harsh treatment of detainees during the Bush administration's war on terror. Specifically, Holder said, he wanted a "preliminary review into whether federal laws were violated in connection with the interrogation of specific detainees at overseas locations."
In April, after the White House released memos detailing interrogation techniques used by the CIA between 2002 and 2005, Obama visited CIA headquarters. "Don't be discouraged that we have to acknowledge potentially we have made some mistakes – that's how we learn," Obama said at the time. "So I want to make a point that... I understand that it's hard when you are asked to protect the American people against people who have no scruples and would willingly and gladly kill innocents."
It's a highly-charged issue, to say the least. Many progressives have pushed for a full investigation into so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" authorized by members of the Bush administration. The fact that agents were following orders doesn't matter, these critics say – under law, perpetrators of torture must be prosecuted. Republicans, meanwhile, have shoved back, claiming that a "witch hunt" would divide the agency and further damage the reputation of the US government abroad.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama toed the line. "If crimes have been committed, they should be investigated," he said, adding, according to Salon, "I would not want my first term consumed by what was perceived on the part of the Republicans as a partisan witch hunt, because I think we've got too many problems to solve."
The new charges are seen by many Republicans as a broadside against the Bush administration – a full-out frontal assault. And the Bush team isn't pulling any punches. "I think the decision is disgusting," Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush's first press secretary, told Sam Stein of the Huffington Post. "It's amazing to me that the people who kept us safe may now become the people our government prosecutes. There are plenty of real criminals out there – it would be nice if the Justice Department went after them," he said yesterday.
Now it's Cheney's turn to weigh in. But unlike Fleischer, Cheney isn't content merely to slam the probe. Instead, he invoked that hoary Republican talking point: Democrats are weak on defense. "President Obama's decision to allow the Justice Department to investigate and possibly prosecute CIA personnel, and his decision to remove authority for interrogation from the CIA to the White House, serves as a reminder, if any were needed, of why so many Americans have doubts about this Administration's ability to be responsible for our nation's security," Cheney said.
It's worth noting, of course, that a good percentage of Democrats think that the investigation, far from being too invasive, won't be thorough enough. Here's New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler:
I applaud the Attorney General for this first step. But, we must go further. As I have said for many months, it is vital that this special counsel be given a broad mandate to investigate these abuses, to follow the evidence where it leads, and to prosecute where warranted. This must be a robust mission to gather any and all evidence without predetermination of where it may lead. Seeking out only the low-level actors in a conspiracy to torture detainees will bring neither justice nor restored standing to our nation.
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