Democratic complicity in Bush’s torture regimen

With one extremist Bush policy after the next, congressional Democratic leaders are revealed to be the administration's key enablers and supporters.

Topics: Washington, D.C.,

(updated below)

The Washington Post reports today that the Bush administration, beginning in 2002, repeatedly briefed leading Congressional Democrats on the Senate and House Intelligence Committees — including, at various times, Jay Rockefeller, Nancy Pelosi, and Jane Harman — regarding the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation methods,” including details about waterboarding and other torture measures. With one exception (Harman, who vaguely claims to have sent a letter to the CIA), these lawmakers not only failed to object to these policies, but affirmatively supported them.

This information was almost certainly leaked to the Post by intelligence officials who are highly irritated — understandably so — from watching the manipulative spectacle whereby these Democrats now prance around as outraged victims of policies to which they deliberately acquiesced, when they weren’t fully supporting them. Numerous liberal bloggers are already drawing the only conclusions that can be drawn, and expressing their outrage and horror at the Democratic Party leadership. Those sentiments are indisputably appropriate, and I just want to add a few more points to them.

Jay Rockefeller was one of the key Democrats briefed on the torture methods who never objected. But it’s far worse than that. In September, 2006, Rockefeller was one of 12 Senate Democrats to vote in favor of the Military Commissions Act, one of the principal purposes of which was to explicitly authorize the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation program” to proceed (even though it continues to be illegal under the Geneva Conventions). Thus, not only did Rockefeller remain silent when continuously briefed on illegal torture methods by the CIA, he then voted to legalize those methods by voting in favor of one of the most Draconian laws in modern American history. That law also retroactively immunized government officials from any liability for past lawbreaking.

Rockefeller is not just any Democrat. He is the individual whom the Democratic Senate caucus thereafter elected — and still chooses — to lead them on all matters relating to intelligence. Just consider how compromised he is and they are when it comes to investigating abuses by the intelligence community over the last six years. Rockefeller was complicit in all of those abuses, and the Democrats voted for him — and still support him — as their Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. How can Rockefeller possibly preside over meaningful investigations into conduct and policies — including the destruction of the videotapes and the conduct which those videotapes would reveal — of which he approved? And how can Senate Democrats pretend to be outraged at such policies when the leader they chose supports them?

This is exactly why I was so ambivalent, at best, about the Democrats’ melodramatic protest that Michael Mukasey’s refusal to condemn waterboarding as torture somehow placed him beyond the realm of the mainstream. Torture didn’t become an American policy despite the best efforts of a righteous Democratic leadership to stop that. Torture became an American policy precisely because a meek and often outright supportive Democratic leadership continuously allowed it. As I wrote at the time the Democrats were pretending to consider impeding Mukasey’s confirmation:

This notion that Mukasey’s unwillingness to declare waterboarding categorically illegal crosses some sort of bright Beltway line seems equally unconvincing, even somewhat manipulative. It has long been known that the Bush administration directed the CIA (at least) to waterboard detainees who were convicted of nothing. There was very little real protest about any of that from any genuine Beltway power circles, including Senate Democrats.

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In fact, even knowing that, the Military Commissions Act was enacted merely a year ago, deliberately leaving an unclear legal landscape (at best) as to whether waterboarding was outlawed. And Democrats did not even engage in the debate, and did not even try to mount any serious opposition to it. Quite the contrary, most of them were mute when the debate was being held, preferring to hide behind the McCain/Warner/Graham trio, and were even prepared to vote in favor of the Act until some last minute tinkering made without their participation offended them enough (on procedural grounds) to cause them to cast meaningless votes against it, long after its passage was guaranteed. . . .

But now, [Mukasey's radical beliefs] and he are well within mainstream Beltway ideology, thanks to some combination of acquiescence and active support from the core of both political parties. And there is something deeply artificial and manipulative about a Congress that has decided to permit all of these things to take root to pretend suddenly that they are so offended by them, that what Mukasey believes crosses their bright lines so clearly that he cannot be confirmed.

I’m not making this point in service of some broader aim. I’m not pointing any of this out in order to try to persuade anyone that there are no meaningful differences between the parties or that it’s irrelevant who wins in 2008 (here, for instance, are the partisan vote breakdowns on the Military Commissions Act and bill to legalize warrantless eavesdropping). But it is simply undeniable that the Democratic leadership has continuously enabled and, more often, supported the defining Bush policies.

I wish none of this were true. I wish we had a genuine, vibrant opposition party. It would be indescribably beneficial if the rare, isolated and usually marginalized voices within the Democratic Party (and the even rarer and more marginalized voices in the GOP) were predominant. But they just aren’t. That’s just a fact that can’t be ignored. The Democratic Party in Congress is largely controlled and led by those who have enabled and affirmatively supported the worst aspects of the Bush foreign policy and the most severe abuses of our country’s political values.

And efforts to apologize for what these Congressional Democrats have done by claiming that they “were virtually helpless to respond,” or suggesting that knowingly inconsequential expressions of private protest are somehow noble, are counter-productive. Why excuse or apologize for the profound failure of those who seek leadership positions on the Intelligence Committee — who, after all, are being briefed precisely because they are expected to act when they learn of illegal behavior — when they abdicate their responsibilities? That only encourages such malfeasance to continue.

Powerful Committee members have all sorts of options for stopping such lawbreaking. They chose not to avail those options, either out of fear, indifference and — apparently in many cases — because they supported the lawbreaking. The solution is to work to replace those who have done that with those who won’t. Torture methods aren’t any less reprehensible when endorsed by Democrats.

Beyond the complicit Jay Rockefeller, consider whom Nancy Pelosi installed as his House counterpart on the Intelligence Committee — Silvestre Reyes. As Harper‘s Ken Silverstein reports today, Reyes has numerous, overlapping close personal ties with the CIA official at the center of the scandal over the destroyed interrogation videotapes, Jose Rodriguez. Silverstein also references a report that a key contractor with extensive business before the House Intelligence Committee not only contributes extensively to Reyes’ campaign, but now employs both his son and daughter.

How can Reyes be expected to exercise meaningful oversight over the intelligence community when he is so intricately linked to its leading members? Reyes just issued a statement urging that the “destroyed video” investigation not dump everything on a “scapegoat” (meaning Rodriguez) — a fair enough point, but one he’s in no position to make given that Rodriguez is such a close confidant of his and any such statement would be understood as his wanting to protect his “very close friend.”

Just look at how compromised Congressional Democratic leaders are when it comes to those charged with exercising “oversight” over our intelligence communities. And one finds this with almost the entire list of Bush abuses.

Whether it’s the war in Iraq or illegal surveillance or the abolition of habeas corpus and now the systematic use of torture, it’s the Bush administration that conceived of the policies, implemented them and presided over their corrupt application. But it’s Congressional Democrats at the leadership level who were the key allies and enablers, never getting their hands dirty with implementation — and thus feigning theatrical, impotent outrage once each abuse was publicly exposed — but nonetheless working feverishly the entire time to enable all of it every step of the way.

UPDATE: Law Professor Michael Froomkin has an insightful refutation to the claim that Rockefeller, Harman and friends were “helpless” upon learning of the administration’s illegal torture program (and, by extension, its illegal surveillance activities) based on the excuse that they were legally compelled to maintain the secrecy of this classified information. I actually have some additional thoughts on this topic as well regarding other mechanisms they could have invoked (which I touched on the other day here, and will write more about tomorrow), but Froomkin raises an important point I hadn’t thought of.

Digby has additional thoughts on this same subject here. The bottom line is that the law requires that Intelligence Committee members such as Pelosi, Harman and Rockefeller be briefed on such activities not because briefings are fun or intrinsically valuable. Rather, the whole point of their being briefed is that they are expected to engage in oversight, which means that they are supposed to do something when they learn that the President and the CIA are breaking the law.

Why would they even bother to go to the briefings if they tell themselves ahead of time: “even if intelligence officials confess to serial, deliberate lawbreaking and vow to continue breaking the law, there is absoultely nothing I can do about it, because I’m sworn to secrecy”? That’s absurd. Their obligation to maintain the secrecy of classified information applies to proper and legal intelligence activities. They’re not only able, but duty-bound, to act to impede patent lawbreaking (such as torture). That’s the whole purpose of “oversight.”

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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