Monday, January 07, 2008

Let's Go To The Tapes!

Last week was surprisingly hectic, and I had to miss a chance to go on the local public TV station's Horizon program Thursday evening to analyze the Iowa caucus results because I already had made an appointment to give blood. Hey, am I a stereotypical liberal, or what? But this week, I'll have the New Hampshire results earlier in the week and can look ahead to the all-important, make-or-break, first-or-second-in-the-West Nevada caucus! (That's sarcasm, folks.)

I had fun with an angry 'winger reader who, after this column, was furious that I'm always so negative about Bush. I explained that I write for the nearly 70% of Americans who disapprove of his performance, while my paper's op-ed pages are 2-to-1 slanted the other way. So it's my job to speak for -- wait for it -- the silent majority. I could hear his gasket blowing miles away.

East Valley Tribune, Jan. 6, 2007

I'm writing this column six hours before we learn the results from Iowa, so I desperately need a topic that will still be relevant three days later. But I'll resist the temptation to join all the other pundits in denouncing the Iowa caucuses, because people who have no problem with the college football Bowl Championship Series (or communities that host a BCS game) probably shouldn't complain too loudly that the Iowa caucuses are undemocratic, illogical, and unfair.

Instead, you may have missed -- with all the ongoing Bush administration scandals, it's getting awfully hard to keep up -- the Justice Department opening a criminal investigation into the CIA's destruction of interrogation videotapes.

The investigation, to be headed by a career prosecutor from Connecticut because of potential conflicts of interest (the CIA's Inspector General expects to be a witness; the U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia prosecutes cases for the CIA), appears to be focused solely on the destruction of videos of interrogations of two "senior Qaeda operatives," Abu Zubaydah and Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri.

The destruction of the tapes is pretty significant, because as the two co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission detailed in The New York Times last week, the Commission asked repeatedly and specifically for documents of all types from any al-Qaeda interrogations. Former GOP governor Thomas Kean and former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton were pretty blunt: "What we do know is that government officials decided not to inform a lawfully constituted body, created by Congress and the president, to investigate one [of] the greatest tragedies to confront this country. We call that obstruction."

Yikes, not much wiggle room there. Kean and Hamilton are a bipartisan pair of retired politicians. You know, the kind of older white guys who get "centrist" columnists all hot and lathered about the excess partisanship and lack of consensus in today's Washington. (Yesterday's Washington being a halcyon wellspring of mutual good feeling and fantastic accomplishment, just the way every middle-aged guy recalls himself being a lot more attractive as a youngster than he actually was.) Did it ever occur to these pundits that there's a lack of consensus in Washington because a lot of us Americans actually disagree about issues? Face it, how could anything on which Austin Hill, Bob Satnan, and I all agree even be worth discussing?

So the Justice Department will investigate the destruction of those two sets of videotapes, but as Laura Rozen wondered, does anybody really think that the CIA had only one copy of videos of interrogations of "high value" detainees? That nobody at the Agency worried about maybe missing a word or having a second translator make sure everything got into English correctly? That they'd really destroy all records of every single interrogation after 2 days? That nobody in Washington ever wanted to see video of the interrogation to see what those idiots in the field may have missed? Ever since Hammurabi was king of Babylon, government agencies always have kept copies. You really think the CIA didn't?

Those interrogation tapes probably would make the Bush administration's attempts to draw distinctions between "torture" (what we don't do!) and "tough" or "enhanced" interrogation methods (which we use, but we can't explain what we mean, because it's classified!) lose the rest of its plausibility once everybody can see exactly what was done. If cell phone pictures of Abu Ghiraib were powerful, just consider what looking at a waterboarding tape would be like. And as Emily Bazelon and Dahlia Lithwick wrote last month, what happens to the government's terrorism cases if defendants now have proof that the prosecution used evidence collected under circumstances that will turn your stomach?

This isn't a big mystery. The Qaeda interrogations would be President Bush's "Rodney King video." Bush will get off -- if the administration can't once again blame a few bad apples, they always can pardon themselves -- but the stain on our nation's honor won't be so easily remedied.

No comments: