Facing an Obama dilemma

Posted: Friday, January 16, 2009

Even before President Bush is out the door, critical new allegations of misconduct by subordinates have surfaced in the press that cry out for investigations by the incoming Obama administration.

The Bush official in charge of reviewing treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay has said in a Washington Post interview that some of them were tortured, contradicting Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney that torture did not occur on their watch.

At the same time, the Bush Justice Department's inspector general has reported that Justice's former chief civil rights lawyer blatantly used political considerations in hiring and firing lawyers, in violation of civil service laws.

These reports are only the latest charges fueling demands from Bush critics that the new administration, on taking office, launch a sweeping investigation into what they call the crimes of the Bush-Cheney administration of the last eight years.

The first charge came from Susan J. Crawford, the official overseeing military prosecutions of Guantanamo detainees, who said one of the alleged plotters of the 9/11 terrorist attacks suffered "treatment (that) met the legal definition of torture." Because the treatment was "abusive and uncalled for" and "clearly coercive," Crawford said, she did not refer his case for prosecution.

In the latest Justice Department allegation of politically motivated bias in personnel matters, former civil rights division official Bradley J. Schlozman is said to have rewarded conservative job applicants he called "right-thinking Americans" and rejected "Commies" in defiance of civil service standards.

All this comes at a time President-elect Barack Obama is making a concerted effort to reach out to the opposition party in Congress, pursuing the "post-partisanship" of which he preached often in his presidential campaign.

But it is specifically in the matter of detainee treatment that he is feeling pressure to scrutinize the decisions and behavior of the departing Republican administration, in light of recent public remarks he has made.

Only last Sunday, on the ABC News "This Week" show, host George Stephanopoulos asked Obama whether he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate what an online critic called "the greatest crimes of the Bush administration, including torture and warrantless wiretapping."

Obama tap-danced his answer, saying "we are still evaluating" the matter and that "obviously we're going to be looking at past practices - I don't believe anybody is above the law. On the other hand," he said, "I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards."

Sounding much like Cheney in defending questionable CIA detainee interrogations, Obama went on to say the agency has "extraordinarily talented people working hard to keep America safe. I don't want them to suddenly feel like they've got to spend all their time looking over their shoulders and lawyering," he said, presumably out of fear of possible prosecution themselves.

The ABC host pressed Obama further: "So, no 9/11 commission with independent subpoena power?" The president-elect replied: "We have made no final decision, but my instinct is for us to focus on how do we make sure that moving forward we are doing the right thing. That doesn't mean that if somebody has blatantly broken the law, that they are above the law. But my orientation is going to be to move forward."

Stephanopoulos pushed him again: "You're not ruling out prosecution, but will you tell your Justice Department to investigate these cases and follow the evidence where it leads?"

Obama said his attorney-general nominee, Eric Holder, "ultimately (is) going to make some calls, but my general belief is that when it comes to national security, what we have to focus on is getting things right in the future, as opposed (to) looking at what we got wrong in the past."

Considering the mountain of woes left on Obama's plate as he enters the presidency, and his need for good relations with the opposition party as he tackles the challenge, that focus is understandable. But fellow Democrats and other Americans outraged by the last eight years of Bush and Cheney will want a price to be paid by perpetrators of any wrongdoing. The new president may well take the easy way out by leaving the task to the Democratic Congress.

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