Recent revelations that the president and his top cabinet members "discussed and approved" specific interrogation techniques, including torture, has renewed speculation about possible criminal activities in the Bush White House. Highlighting the president's admission about personally approving the discussions, the Washington Post's Dan Froomkin noted, "If you consider what the government did to be torture, which is a crime according to U.S. and international law, Bush's statement shifts his role from being an accessory after the fact to being part of a conspiracy to commit."
Of course, even a preliminary investigation is a fantasy, at least as long as Bush is office.
But what about Bush's successor? Eight years ago, Pat Buchanan used to joke that, if elected, his first act after having been sworn in would be to turn to Bill Clinton and say, "Mr. President, you're under arrest." It's unlikely either of the remaining Democratic presidential candidates would make a similar pledge, though Will Bunch spoke to Barack Obama about the idea of prosecuting Bush administration officials for possible crimes.
Obama said that as president he would indeed ask his new Attorney General and his deputies to "immediately review the information that's already there" and determine if an inquiry is warranted -- but he also tread carefully on the issue, in line with his reputation for seeking to bridge the partisan divide. He worried that such a probe could be spun as "a partisan witch hunt." However, he said that equation changes if there was willful criminality, because "nobody is above the law." [...]
I mentioned the [ABC News] report in my question, and said "I know you've talked about reconciliation and moving on, but there's also the issue of justice, and a lot of people -- certainly around the world and certainly within this country -- feel that crimes were possibly committed" regarding torture, rendition, and illegal wiretapping. I wanted to know how whether his Justice Department "would aggressively go after and investigate whether crimes have been committed."
It's not quite the reaction I expected from Obama. One of his rhetorical staples is his desire to "turn the page." I suspect Obama, if elected, would be anxious to get started on advancing an ambitious policy agenda, especially in his first two years, when he's likely to have strong Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress.
The notion that he'd say, "Before we turn the page, I'd like my Justice Department to start investigating my predecessor's criminal activities," seems a little far-fetched.
Nevertheless, Obama's comments to Bunch were encouraging. I'm not sure how willing he'd be to follow up on this, but as a basic legal principle -- "nobody is above the law" -- Obama's sentiment seems like the right one.
Maybe this is a subject the candidates can explore in a little more detail. It may not be as sexy to reporters as "bitter" voters in small towns, but it has the benefit of significance.