Wednesday, July 15, 2009

How Best to Investigate

Continuing from the prior post, the New York Times reports that the CIA Inspector General's report on what really went on at the secret "black sites" may soon be released, and that Attorney General Eric Holder is sufficiently outraged to be considering prosecution. Naturally it treats any attempt to find out about the Bush Administration's crimes as a foolish distraction from what is really important.

By contrast, the Washington Post suggests that "[B]y confining any criminal investigation to the narrow issue of CIA interrogators who operated outside legal boundaries, and by ruling out the possibility of criminal charges for lawyers and policymakers, the Obama administration has given itself an argument for forestalling a congressional probe likely to be far messier and more public than a traditional law enforcement inquiry."

My own view on all of this is decidely mixed. Beyond any doubt, I want the Bush Administration crimes brought out into broad daylight for all to see. Sunlight, as the saying goes, is the best disinfectant, and only exposure has a chance of rooting them out and keeping them for recurring. The question is who should do the exposing, the executive or Congress.

My ideal answer is Congress. We badly need to know that the legislative branch can assert itself and reign in the excesses of the executive, instead of leaving the executive to police itself. I want such exposure to be as "messy" and "public" as possible. Certainly the Church Committee managed to effectively expose the excesses of every administration from FDR to Nixon to plenty of public scrutiny and seriously shift (though temporarily!) shift the balance of power away from the executive.

On the other hand, our whole system, including our system of media, has become so executive oriented these days that exposure by Congressional investigation may not matter at all. "Messy" though it may be, such an investigation may escape the notice of the public. After all the Senate Armed Services Committee launched an excellent investigation and report on torture by the military, but made little impact. Because of the heavily executive-oriented natures of our media today, their fine exposure did not gain a fraction of the attention given to the release of the OLC Torture Memos by the Obama Administration, and, unlike the release of the memos, did not spark any sort of serious public debate.

My ultimate conclusion, therefore, is that to be truly effective, exposure of the Bush Administration crimes must be done by both the executive and the legislature. The little exposures that have taken place so far have kept the frail process alive so far. Here's to more down the line!

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