Impeach Jay Bybee, and ignore Rahm Emanuel

His torture memos prove he has no place on the federal bench. But let's not stop there, no matter what Emanuel says.

Published April 19, 2009 4:33PM (EDT)

The blogosphere has been charged with debate about impeaching Jay Bybee, the deputy attorney general whose name is on arguably the worst torture memo released last Thursday. Bruce Ackerman wrote a convincing case for impeaching Bybee on Friday; today the New York Times joined the cause with a fiery editorial: "These memos make it clear that Mr. Bybee is unfit for a job that requires legal judgment and a respect for the Constitution. Congress should impeach him."

But the editorial goes beyond that point – read the whole thing – to make the case that President Obama and Congress have a legal obligation to investigate the entire chain of command behind Bybee and other government lawyers' sick, skewed defense of torture.

"[I]f the administration will not conduct a thorough investigation of these issues, then Congress has a constitutional duty to hold the executive branch accountable. If that means putting Donald Rumsfeld and Alberto Gonzales on the stand, even Dick Cheney, we are sure Americans can handle it.

After eight years without transparency or accountability, Mr. Obama promised the American people both. His decision to release these memos was another sign of his commitment to transparency. We are waiting to see an equal commitment to accountability."

Unfortunately, on ABC's "This Week," White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel seemed to say that Obama had ruled out prosecuting not only CIA officials and agents but also higher-ups who authorized the torture.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Final quick question. The president has ruled out prosecutions for CIA officials who believed they were following the law. Does he believe that the officials who devised the policies should be immune from prosecution?

EMANUEL: What he believes is, look, as you saw in that statement he wrote, and I would just take a step back. He came up with this and he worked on this for about four weeks, wrote that statement Wednesday night, after he made his decision, and dictated what he wanted to see. And Thursday morning, I saw him in the office, he was still editing it.

He believes that people in good faith were operating with the guidance they were provided. They shouldn't be prosecuted.

STEPHANOPOULOS: What about those who devised policy?

EMANUEL: Yes, but those who devised policy, he believes that they were -- should not be prosecuted either, and that's not the place that we go -- as he said in that letter, and I would really recommend people look at the full statement -- not the letter, the statement -- in that second paragraph, "this is not a time for retribution." It's time for reflection. It's not a time to use our energy and our time in looking back and any sense of anger and retribution.

Emanuel can't be the last word on that; he's the politics guy, and sure, there are political risks to pursuing the architects of our torture policy. But the political risks that come with ignoring what happened are so much greater.

I was also grateful to the Times for a terrific Saturday piece that laid out in sickening detail the points I made in my CNN debate with G. Gordon Liddy Thursday night: In the case of Abu Zubaydah, U.S. officials claimed they were torturing a top al-Qaida leader with a strong psychological and spiritual backbone; instead they tortured a flunky who was probably crazy before they tortured him, and who gave them nothing of value despite the abuse.

There were a couple of fascinating tidbits in the Times piece that I hadn't known. For one thing, the useful piece of information Zubaydah gave the U.S. – that the top planner of 9/11 was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – came before the torture began, when Zubaydah was interrogated by FBI agents who were playing good cop, helping him get medical treatment for the wounds he suffered in his capture.

Second, and this was chilling, some of the interrogators on hand began to blanch at the abuse of Zubaydah, and also came to believe he had no more to tell them – but "top CIA officials back at headquarters" continued to push for more harsh treatment. I don't care if Obama says he has no plans to punish them; we need to know the names of these incompetent sadists.

I'm concerned about the relative silence from the Obama administration and Congress about what comes next. There clearly needs to be a torture investigation; personally, I'd prefer that it be led by an independent prosecutor at this point. I think there is more than enough proof that laws were broken, and we need accountability. But I'd support starting with a strong Congressional probe if there's more political will for that right now.

I believe that every step we take to learn more will only strengthen the case that someone must be held accountable for the lawless cruelty that marked the Bush-Cheney torture regime. We can start by impeaching Jay Bybee, but it can't end there.


By Joan Walsh

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