Political Hay

Obama and the Dogs of War

This isn't Bo we're talking about.

By 4.27.09

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When President Obama said he would release some of the CIA transcripts covering incidents of "enhanced interrogation techniques" he told his chief of staff and press secretary to put out the word that this was the end of the matter; that it was time to look forward and, no, there would be no prosecutions.

Obama thought this was just the right sop to throw to Cerberus, Cerberus being the far-left wing of the Democratic Party. Instead, he was unleashing the dogs of war. These, the MoveOn.org/Daily Kos people, nurse resentments full time. They resent George W. Bush for becoming president. They resent their own country because it is rich and powerful. They resented interrogation of terrorists because they seemed to think terrorism was not a continuing threat. They are a minority within their party, but they are very noisy and have plenty of money (supplied by George Soros and other rich sympathizers). 

They were in full roar after the transcript release. Here was the opportunity to get what they wanted: putting George Bush and Dick Cheney in the dock, if not directly, then just a step or two removed. They clamored for a Special Prosecutor. Prosecution is, after all, what Special Prosecutors do. For proof we have only to look to Patrick Fitzgerald's prosecution of Scooter Libby and Lawrence Walsh's prosecution of Reagan Administration officials over the Iran-Contra affair.

Highly partisan Congressional Democrats chimed in. What they wanted were show trials, a.k.a. hearings, to shame and humiliate whomever they could from the Bush Administration. Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rep. John Conyers, chairmen of their respective judiciary committees, led this call. 

Caught off guard by the left's ferocity, Obama turned his no-prosecution message into "maybe." He left it all in the hands of Attorney General Eric Holder, who ruled out prosecuting the interrogators, but said he would investigate the Department of Justice lawyers who wrote the memos giving legal justification for the "enhanced interrogation techniques."

Late the other week, Holder, in a Congressional hearing, gave a clue to the outcome. He said he would not engage in an effort to criminalize policy differences. He knows what harm would come form attempting to prosecute government lawyers for rendering legal opinions. 

Indeed, for what crime could they prosecuted? Failure to advise the interrogators they had to serve tea and watercress sandwiches to the detainees every afternoon? That, at least, might have appeased the ACLU, with its obsession with terrorists' rights. 

There will be no prosecution, for if there were it would surely come out under oath that most of the members of the two Congressional intelligence committeess were fully briefed in 2002 and 2003 on these techniques and gave either active or tacit approval. There was not a word of dissent at that time, making them potential accessories after the fact. Not even amnesiac Speaker Nancy Pelosi could escape the spotlight's glare. 

This whole exercise is, indeed, an attempt to criminalize policy differences. In that respect it bears some resemblance to the Iran-Contra issue of two decades ago and the campaign by the late Senator Frank Church (D-ID) in the 1970s that left the CIA demoralized. The latter was augmented, perhaps unintentionally, by former Admiral Stansfield Turner, President Carter's CIA director, who disbanded human intelligence assets, thinking the entire job could be done by satellites. It took two decades to rebuild that intelligence network. 

Leon Panetta, President Obama's CIA director, urged him not to release the transcripts, understanding what a Pandora's Box it would open. Both Obama's directof of national intelligence, Dennis C. Blair, and former CIA Director Michael Hayden have said the interrogation of Khalil Sheik Mohammed and two other al Qaeda detainees provided important information some of which, it is said, prevented a 9/11-type attack in Los Angeles. 

Whether scaring Khlaid Sheik Mohammed with waterboarding for 30 seconds at a time was "torture" or not depends on whether one believes that such a technique was worth it because it saved thousand of lives. 

Like a dog with a juicy bone, the far left does not want to let go of this issue. Only Mr. Obama can keep it from careering out of control and threatening to deeply divide the country. He must stop Congress from beginning a circus that could last for months on end. The answer may be a 9/11-type commission composed of people beyond politics. Whether the 9/11 group's conclusions were all correct, its work was careful, measured and considered, not raucous. Unless he does this, President Obama will never get the dogs of war back in their kennels.

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About the Author
Peter Hannaford was closely associated with the late President Reagan for a number of years. He is a member of the board of the Committee on the Present Danger. His latest book is “Presidential Retreats.”