Our political class in a nutshell

An Obama official (about Afghans): "We believe anyone suspected of war crimes should be thoroughly investigated."

By Glenn Greenwald
July 11, 2009 5:12PM (UTC)
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(updated below - Update II)

Agence France Press, yesterday:

The Bush administration repeatedly sought to block investigations into alleged killings of up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners by a US-backed Afghan warlord in 2001, The New York Times reported Friday.

Top US officials discouraged separate probes by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the State Department and the Pentagon into the mass killings because it was conducted by the forces of General Abdul Rashid Dostam, a warlord then on the Central Intelligence Agency's payroll, the Times said on its website. . . .

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Richard Holbrooke, the special US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, have told Karzai they objected to the recent reinstatement of Dostam as military chief of staff, the Times said, citing a senior State Department official.

"We believe that anyone suspected of war crimes should be thoroughly investigated," the official added, hinting the Obama administration is open to an inquiry.

The New York Times, April 23, 2009:

Senate Democratic leaders, joining forces with the Obama White House, said they would resist efforts by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other prominent Democrats to create a special commission to investigate the harsh interrogation methods that the Bush administration approved for terrorism suspects.

At a meeting of top Democrats at the White House Wednesday night, President Obama told Congressional leaders that he did not want a special inquiry, which he said would potentially steal time and energy from his ambitious policy priorities, and could mushroom into a wider distraction by looking back at other aspects of the Bush years.

The New York Times, February 9, 2009:

In a closely watched case involving rendition and torture, a lawyer for the Obama administration seemed to surprise a panel of federal appeals judges on Monday by pressing ahead with an argument for preserving state secrets originally developed by the Bush administration.

In the case, Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian native, and four other detainees filed suit against a subsidiary of Boeing for arranging flights for the Bush administration’s “extraordinary rendition” program, in which terrorism suspects were secretly taken to other countries, where they say they were tortured. The Bush administration argued that the case should be dismissed because even discussing it in court could threaten national security and relations with other nations.

During the campaign, Mr. Obama harshly criticized the Bush administration’s treatment of detainees, and he has broken with that administration on questions like whether to keep open the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. But a government lawyer, Douglas N. Letter, made the same state-secrets argument on Monday, startling several judges on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

That about sums everything up:  War Crimes are heinous and intolerable acts that all decent people reject; "anyone suspected of war crimes should be thoroughly investigated"; and War Criminals must not be allowed in any positions of authority . . . . except when the War Crimes in question are committed by Americans, in which case all investigations and accountability must be blocked and those who defended and even approved them are perfectly welcomed in our highest positions of authority (including, ironically, overseeing our war in Afghanistan).  See also, quite relatedly:  this post from earlier today on how we continue to shield from any accountability the clear and serious crimes committed by Bush officials in how they spied on Americans.  Let's just repeat the sermon from the anonymous Obama official in demanding an investigation into crimes by this Afghan warlord:  "We believe that anyone suspected of war crimes should be thoroughly investigated."  It doesn't appear that they know what the word "anyone" means.



UPDATE:  Obama today is in Ghana and, according to CBS News' Mark Knoller, he vowed that the U.S. would help Africa "hold war criminals accountable" -- meaning, of course, African war criminals.  Obviously, the magnitude of war crimes can vary, but given the huge impact (including many detainee deaths) which Bush war crimes wreaked, no reasonable person can argue that accountability is inappropriate there because they aren't significant enough.  Rather obviously, the only attribute that causes us to shield them from exposure and accountability is that they are American.



UPDATE II:  As Joan Walsh notes, a new Newsweek article just out from Daniel Klaidman is sub-headlined:  "Obama doesn't want to look back, but Attorney General Eric Holder may probe Bush-era torture anyway" and reports:

Holder, 58, may be on the verge of asserting his independence in a profound way. Four knowledgeable sources tell NEWSWEEK that he is now leaning toward appointing a prosecutor to investigate the Bush administration's brutal interrogation practices, something the president has been reluctant to do. While no final decision has been made, an announcement could come in a matter of weeks, say these sources, who decline to be identified discussing a sensitive law-enforcement matter.

Such a decision would roil the country, would likely plunge Washington into a new round of partisan warfare, and could even imperil Obama's domestic priorities, including health care and energy reform. Holder knows all this, and he has been wrestling with the question for months. "I hope that whatever decision I make would not have a negative impact on the president's agenda," he says. "But that can't be a part of my decision."

I'll believe that only if and when I see it, but as Obama himself has recognized, it's ultimately irrelevant what Obama wants in this regard.  The duty to bring prosecutions where they are merited falls squarely and solely with the Attorney General, and indeed, it would be highly inappropriate for the President to attempt to pressure him one way or the other. 

As Holder ostensibly recognizes, the type of political considerations that Obama defenders typically cite in order to justify the President's opposition to prosecutions ("it will ruin bipartisanship; it will distract from health care; he has to focus on the economy") are completely inappropriate for an apolitical Attorney General to allow to steer him away from prosecutions where serious crimes were committed.  That's particularly true where, as here, we're talking about serious war crimes which the U.S. is obligated by treaty to submit for prosecution.  The appointment of a strong and truly independent prosecutor to investigate Bush-era war crimes would be a substantial step in the right direction.

Glenn Greenwald

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