Washington Post: "Accountability" is dangerous

A warning for Democrats who might make too much of Scooter Libby, Walter Reed and the politicization of justice.

Published March 7, 2007 2:46PM (EST)

The Washington Post's Peter Baker has a front-page, post-Libby warning for Democrats today: Don't go overboard with all this "accountability" stuff.

Baker notes that Democrats have held 81 hearings on Iraq and have used their "newfound subpoena power to sharp effect" in forcing the Bush administration to answer for the shoddy way U.S. soldiers are treated at Walter Reed and the political motivations behind the firing of federal prosecutors. Baker dutifully quotes Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, as saying that these probes are "just the beginning."

Then comes the warning.

"But acountability politics can also be dangerous to the touch," Baker writes. "Washington became consumed during the presidency of Emanuel's onetime boss, Bill Clinton, whose administration came under scrutiny of at least seven independent counsels and even more Republican congressional committees ... The risk for Democrats would be overplaying the accountability hand. Their attempts to impose limits on Bush's ability to fight the war have collapsed repeatedly and left them unable to fashion a coherent approach to the most serious issue in the country. Some Republicans suggested that the public could tire of repeated hearings such as those held this week and write them off to partisanship."

And that's exactly what the public will do, so long as it has stories like this one encouraging the conclusion that what we once called checks and balances is now inevitably just a game of partisan "gotcha."

Baker has got one thing right: The Clinton administration did indeed undergo investigations from a slew of independent counsels. There was a $17 million investigation into the alleged corruption of Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy that ended in his acquittal on all counts. There was an 18-month probe into Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt that ended when the independent counsel said she could find no evidence of illegal activities. There was a two-year-long investigation into Labor Secretary Alexis Herman that ended with the independent counsel's decision not to prosecute her. There was the probe into the firing of employees in the White House travel office; it ended with accusations against Hillary Clinton but no criminal charges.

A decadelong investigation into whether HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros lied about payments to a mistress during his background checks did lead to a guilty plea on a misdemeanor charge and then a pardon from Clinton, and the independent counsel complained that the Clinton administration had blocked a more thorough investigation. But then there was the $80 million Whitewater probe, which started as an investigation into the first family's pre-Washington land dealings and ultimately turned on whether the president lied about getting blow jobs.

Is it just us, or are the issues at the heart of the Democrats' "accountability politics" -- the mistreatment of our wounded soldiers, the politicization of justice, the way a war started and the way it might end -- just a little more serious than many of those that drove the independent counsels of the Clinton years?

Apparently, it is just us. Baker refers to Iran-Contra and the Monica Lewinsky investigation, then writes that "the Libby case never reached the level of those scandals, of course, but it became a proxy for many in Washington eager to re-litigate the origins of the Iraq war. If Libby lied about his role in the CIA leak case, critics eagerly used that to reinforce their argument that Bush led the nation to war on false pretenses, in effect attacking the centerpiece of his presidency."

It would be hard to write any more dismissively about concerns over the Libby case and what it says about how the White House took us to war. Yes, the Libby case had to be a "proxy" for those "eager to re-litigate the origins of the Iraq war," but that's only because the origins of the war were never "litigated" in the first place. Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, who voted to convict in Bill Clinton's impeachment proceedings, did everything he could to make sure that his Senate Intelligence Committee never quite got around to investigating what George W. Bush and his people did with intelligence on the road to war in Iraq. Roberts and his Republican colleagues knew that "accountability politics" can indeed be dangerous -- especially when it's your side that's being called to account.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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