The Obama officials blocking accountability for Bush crimes

Those with the greatest involvement in Bush abuses are the ones preventing investigations and disclosure.

By Glenn Greenwald
June 15, 2009 2:16PM (UTC)
main article image

[updated below - Update II (important FDL action)]

The battle against baseless, worthless grants of anonymity by journalists is, at this point, probably futile, since even many of the nation's best and most valuable reporters -- such as The New Yorker's Jane Mayer -- seem helplessly addicted to it.  In an otherwise solid and at times enlightening article on CIA Director Leon Panetta and his resistance to investigating past CIA abuses, Mayer includes this passage at the beginning of her article to explain how Panetta was chosen only after Obama's first choice, John Brennan, was rejected:


A friend of Brennan’s from his C.I.A. days complained to me, "After a few Cheeto-eating people in the basement working in their underwear who write blogs voiced objections to Brennan, the Obama Administration pulled his name at the first sign of smoke, and then ruled out a whole class of people: anyone who had been at the agency during the past ten years couldn’t pass the blogger test."

What possible justification is there to grant anonymity to someone to spout these clichéd and factually false insults?  First, as I've documented numerous times and as Mayer herself well knows, the case against Brennan was not that he was "at the agency for the past ten years" or even that he had anything to do with the torture program, but rather that (as she herself documents later in the piece) he explicitly advocated and defended many of the worst torture techniques and other Bush abuses.  Second, unlike the individual who is willing to spout these insults only while cowardly hiding behind Mayer's shield of anonymity, the bloggers who led the opposition to Brennan (including myself and The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan) all attached their names to their views and -- as Spencer Ackerman notes -- are about as far away as one can be from the trite, adolescent cartoons spewed by Mayer's anonymous insulter.  Third, one of the principal points of Mayer's long article is that the objections to Brennan have been vindicated, because -- as Obama's chief counter-terrorism adviser -- he has led the way in urging Obama to keep past CIA abuses suppressed and Bush crimes protected from accountability.

The anonymous name-calling Mayer passes on appears on the first page of her piece, but on page 5, she includes the facts that show how factually false is the characterization of the objections to Brennan:

Brennan’s supporters have argued that he had no operational control over the interrogation program, and point out that his tenure as Tenet’s chief of staff ended in March, 2001, before the Al Qaeda attacks. But he was subsequently named deputy executive director, and served in that position until March, 2003—the period when the most brutal detainee treatment occurred.

In addition, Brennan often briefed President Bush about daily developments in the war on terror.  Brennan has described himself as an internal critic of waterboarding—a position that friends, such as Emile Nakhleh, a former senior officer, confirm. Yet, in an interview with me two years ago, Brennan defended the use of “enhanced” interrogation techniques and extraordinary renditions, in which the C.I.A. abducted terror suspects around the globe and transported them to other countries to be jailed and interrogated; many of those countries had execrable human-rights records. He also questioned some people’s definition of “torture.” “I think it’s torture when I have to ride in the car with my kids and they have loud rap music on,” he said. Asked if “enhanced” interrogation techniques were necessary to keep America safe, he replied, “Would the U.S. be handicapped if the C.I.A. was not, in fact, able to carry out these types of detention and debriefing activities? I would say yes.”

That – his comments defending "enhanced interrogation techniques," making light of torture, and justifying other Bush-era abuses (such as rendition) -- was the crux of the campaign against Brennan’s being named CIA director.  So why pass on the false anonymous attack at the start that purports to define the case against Brennan in such a misleading way?


Far more important than that, Mayer documents that precisely the principal concern of Brennan objectors has already materialized -- namely, he has become Obama’s most forceful advocate for shielding those Bush-era crimes from investigation and protecting the wrongdoers, at the very same time that, as Mayer notes, he has a direct personal interest in blocking accountability:

[Brennan] has reportedly lobbied hard to maintain secrecy on past abuses. According to Newsweek, Brennan recently persuaded Panetta to join him in protesting Obama’s plan to release four shocking Justice Department memos about the interrogation program. . . .

Panetta’s resistance to public disclosure seemed out of character to some longtime colleagues. . . . Panetta’s advisers may have had a personal stake in opposing transparency. Another former C.I.A. official, who knows Brennan well, noted that, if the Bush torture program were to be further investigated, “potentially, both Brennan and [Deputy CIA Director Stephen] Kappes could have a lot to lose.

The argument Brennan made against release of the CIA torture memos is the same argument made to justify suppression of the torture photos:  namely, "that exposing such details could spark an anti-American backlash."  Precisely because Obama has retained so many people involved with or otherwise linked to Bush abuses, he is surrounded by people actively working to block any investigation into or accountability for those crimes.  The most egregious example Mayer describes is the CIA official responsible for the abduction and rendition-for-torture of German citizen Khaled el-Masri, who turned out to be completely innocent:

From the start, the rendition team suspected that his case was one of mistaken identity. But the C.I.A. officer in charge at Langley—the agency asked that the officer’s name be withheld—insisted that Masri be further interrogated. “She just looked in her crystal ball and it said that he was bad,” a colleague recalls. Masri says that he was chained in a freezing cell with no bed, and given water so putrid that he could smell it across the room. He was threatened and stripped, and could hear other detainees crying all around him. After several weeks, the C.I.A. officer in charge learned that Masri’s German passport was not a forgery, as was originally suspected, and that he was not the terror suspect the agency thought he was. (The names were similar.) Even so, the officer in charge refused to release him.

Eventually, Masri went on a hunger strike, losing sixty pounds. Skeptics in the agency went directly over the officer’s head to Tenet, who realized that his agency had been brutalizing an innocent man. Masri was released after a hundred and forty-nine days. But the officer in charge was not disciplined; in fact, a former colleague says, “she’s been promoted—twice.” Masri, meanwhile, has been unable to sue the U.S. government for either an apology or damages, because the courts consider the very existence of rendition a state secret—a position that the Obama Justice Department has so far supported.

And there are numerous other instances in which Panetta is battling to keep evidence of Bush-era crimes suppressed, including his fight against an ACLU lawsuit for disclosure of documents relating to the (almost certainly illegal) destruction of interrogation videotapes.  In many cases, the very same people who defended these abuses are the same ones succeeding in blocking any accountability for them.  Those who defended Bush-era abuses are the last people who ought to be making intelligence decisions going forward.  That was the primary objection to Brennan's becoming CIA Director, and his becoming Obama's top intelligence advisor has obviously vindicated those concerns.


Mayer notes Panetta's efforts (and Obama's) to reverse some of the polices that led to these abuses, including the ban on torture techniques, but the central question is the one posed by her headline:  "Can Leon Panetta move the C.I.A. forward without confronting its past?"  Ultimately, there is a real irony to the Obama administration’s active, concerted efforts to prevent accountability for past crimes:  namely, the greater the suppression efforts, the greater the focus on past Bush abuses will be, since evidence of Bush crimes will seep out slowly and in increments, and there will be constant controversies concerning the Obama administration's suppression efforts themselves (as can be seen with his continuous invocation of the "state secrets" privilege to keep torture and eavesdropping victims out of court; the pressure exerted on Britain to do the same; and his extraordinary efforts to suppress photographic evidence of detainee abuse). 

There are far too many proceedings -- from the prosecutions in Spain to the investigations in Britain to the ongoing (and increasingly successful) civil lawsuits in the U.S. -- to have any hope of preventing full-scale disclosure for much longer.  The only question is whether Obama will be seen as one who worked to conceal the wrongdoing and protect the wrongdoers.  Thus far, at least, the answer is quite clear.  Mayer's new article -- highlighting who is behind these decisions and the personal stake they have in their outcome -- sheds some light into why this is taking place.



UPDATE:  The Daily Beast's Scott Horton interviews Jane Mayer about her article, in which Mayer elaborates on several points, including:  (1) Panetta originally favored a Truth Commission but backed down when it became clear that Obama (backed by political adviser David Axelrod) opposed any investigations into Bush crimes; and (2) John Brennan -- as his opponents continuously maintained -- "wasn’t just neutral, he was a supporter of using coercive interrogation techniques. He drew the line, according to his friends, at waterboarding prisoners, which they say he opposed. But otherwise he supported many of the coercive approaches that Obama has banned."



UPDATE II:  Jane Hamsher and several other bloggers have waged a remarkably resourceful and effective campaign, without much help, to try to stop passage of the war supplemental bill (along with the $100 billion for bailing out foreign banks through the IMF).  Amazingly, largely due to their efforts, the White House -- despite extensive bargaining, cajoling and threats -- still lacks the votes necessary for passage, and Jane needs some help in the form of calls to key House members.  Those interested in helping her stop the war spending bill and foreign bank bailout should read her post here.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

MORE FROM Glenn GreenwaldFOLLOW ggreenwald

Related Topics ------------------------------------------