Should America Delve Deeper Into Torture?

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The torture debate has shifted away from the release of the memos to what we actually do now that we have a glimpse of what transpired. Obviously, this is an extremely complex issue, illustrated most clearly by President Obama's subtle shifts this week. While Obama and attorney general Eric Holder made clear that CIA agents who followed the legal advice that was given to them would not be prosecuted, Obama left the door open on Tuesday to punishing the memos' authors and other, more senior administration officials. But last night Robert Gibbs said the White House would rather look forward — a favorite Obama phrase — and feared that an investigation "would likely just become a political back-and-forth." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has also called a truth commission "very unwise" at this time. Nancy Pelosi and others on the left, meanwhile, have taken the opposite stance. While the administration grapples with the political, legal, and moral consequences of digging deeper into the past, so do the nation's columnists and political commentators.

• Paul Krugman believes that "the only way we can regain our moral compass, not just for the sake of our position in the world, but for the sake of our own national conscience, is to investigate how that happened, and, if necessary, to prosecute those responsible." Even if that effort "impede[s] efforts to deal with the crises of today," that may not matter, as "laws aren’t supposed to be enforced only when convenient." [NYT]

• Eugene Robinson thinks that while "pursuing criminal charges against the highest-ranking officials of the previous administration would be unprecedented, and it is unclear where such a process might lead," it's inevitable that our laws against torture will be enforced, one way or another. "The rule of law is one of this nation's founding principles. It's not optional." [WP]

• Andy McCarthy points out that actually, "the law often is not enforced," as when a lawyer isn't pursued after his client commits perjury. "The bedrock of our system is prosecutorial discretion. How we use the government’s scarce resources is not a legal judgment but a political one that the president is elected to make, with the help of an attorney general expected to have the maturity the task demands." [National Review]

• Peggy Noonan says releasing the memos "probably forces the way ... to congressional hearings, or a commission, or an independent prosecutor," which will almost certainly "prove destructive to ... the good of the country." Obama has ended torture, which is good, but "[h]earings, commissions or prosecutors would suck all the oxygen out of the room and come to obsess the capital, taking focus off two actual, immediate and pressing emergencies, the economy and the age of terror." [WSJ]

• Wesley Pruden wonders where the punishment would end. "If the lawyers who offered legal opinions are at risk of punishment for their legal advice, why not the members of Congress who knew what was going on? Why not the secretaries who typed up the transcripts? Why not the interns who fetched the coffee?" Furthermore, throughout American history, "[n]o president before has sought to punish his predecessor for policy decisions, no matter how wrong or wrong-headed." That's more the "norm in the third world." [Washington Times]

• Peter Kirsanow echoes Pruden, calling it a bewildering double standard that Bush administration officials "may find themselves in legal jeopardy because they authorized the use of enhanced interrogation methods." How about prosecuting the Clinton administration officials "who crafted the famous pre- 9/11 'Wall' — i.e., the Clinton-era policy that separated criminal investigations from intelligence operations, thereby impeding counter-terrorism investigations," thereby endangering Americans instead of protecting them? [Corner/National Review]

• The Washington Post editorial board notes that "the sacred American tradition of peacefully transferring power from one party to another ... without cycles of revenge and criminal investigation" is clashing, in this instance, with the fact that "American officials condoned and conducted torture," which has been clearly "recognized in international and U.S. law for decades as beyond the pale." But because "the past will haunt the present until it is investigated and openly dealt with," Obama should convene "a bipartisan commission composed of respected leaders to conduct a thorough review." We can't know where that prosecution will take us until it's complete. [WP]

• Hugh Hewitt thinks releasing "the interrogation memos hurt the country, but doubling down via some demented victory-dance-show-trial for the gratification of the MSNBC audience would be irresponsible beyond measure." [Town Hall]

• John B. Judis believes that those responsible for torture "deserve some kind of punishment ... but not at the hands of the federal government. And not now," because "recriminations don't work unless the country is fairly united behind them." In addition, "the seemingly insoluble problems we face in the present ... require every minute of attention from the White House and Congress." [Plank/New Republic]

• Roger Cohen is "wary of the clamor for retribution" because the "checks and balances" that "skewed" in the aftermath of 9/11 "are recovering now." While it's always hard to find the "right balance between retribution and reconciliation ... it is wise to err on the side of caution" when there is a war going on and work to be done. [NYT]

• Adam Serwer bets that "there are millions of people currently incarcerated who would like it if Cohen's policy of absolution for crimes was extended to them." [Tapped/American Prospect]

• Ta-Nehisi Coates, likewise, points out the "sliding scale of justice" that "looking forward" would entail. "It's not retribution to, say, try someone for a robbery they committed five years ago, that's 'the system working.' But it is retribution to try to ask that a man who is a sitting judge be investigated, for potentially skirting the law." [Atlantic]

• Glenn Greenwald contends that only those who are against investigations are calling it a political "witch-hunt." For those that want an investigation, "[t]he call for criminal investigations of torture and other forms of government criminality is the most apolitical and non-partisan argument one can make." They don't want to target only Republicans and spare Democrats." The failure of the Democratic Party to meaningfully oppose what was done over the last eight years is a crucial part of the story here and light needs to be shined on that as much as anything else." [Salon]

• Andrew Sullivan agrees that the media is "trying to turn the idea that war crimes should be punished into some kind of partisan game." But it's only "the elite that doesn't want accountability. Because it's their asses on the line." [Atlantic]

Related: Chris Smith: Why Obama's Right on Torture