In an excellent article on the legacy of the Church Committee, the mid-1970’s investigation of U.S. intelligence community abuses, Chris Hayes looks at the possibility of a similar investigation under President Obama:
Obama has insisted, routinely, unwaveringly, that he is “more interested in looking forward than…in looking backwards.” At one level this seems a shocking abrogation of the executive branch’s chief constitutional responsibility, to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” But presumably the thinking goes something like this: the president has a limited amount of political capital, and he can spend it on major, once-in-a-generation reforms of the American social contract — universal healthcare and cap and trade — or he can spend it pursuing justice for the perpetrators of the previous administration’s crimes. As morally worthy as the latter might be, it won’t get anyone healthcare or stop the planet from melting; it won’t provide a new foundation for progressive governance.
But as self-consciously pragmatic as this posture is, it’s proving wildly impractical to implement. The reason is that the White House has limited control over when and what is revealed about crimes and misdeeds of the Bush years, and every time a new revelation hits the papers, such as the recent disclosures of Blackwater’s involvement with the CIA assassination unit and interrogators’ use of “mock executions,” it dominates the news cycle. Since the White House itself has defined such revelations as a “distraction,” every time they are in the news it is, by its own definition, distracted.
The benefit of a new Church Committee would be that it would corral these “distractions” into a coherent undertaking, initiated in Congress, within a fixed time period. It would also provide a framework for systematic investigation of the policies rather than selective prosecutions of those at the bottom of the hierarchy who carried them out.
I find this pretty convincing. I’ve been concerned about such an investigation for precisely the “self-consciously pragmatic” reasons Hayes describes. I think we shouldn’t pretend that what we have here are simply questions of the law — any investigation of this sort is an inherently political enterprise, one that could have serious negative consequences for the progressive policy agenda. As I told NPR for this story, it would be darkly ironic if the Bush administration were, through its past criminality, effectively able to stymie Obama’s broader agenda by causing him to expend valuable political capital to investigate that criminality.
I think, though, that the enormity of the abuses, the fact that they go deeper than the Bush administration, as well as the fact that, as Hayes notes, Obama’s desire to “look forward” has not saved him from having to look backward with every new revelation, all argues for the sort of investigation that Hayes describes. I think the main goal here has to be to ensure that the U.S. never again utilizes torture, and it’s hard to see how that will be achieved without accountability for those who sanctioned the torture.
It’s in the nature of governing institutions to accrue greater power while resisting greater oversight and accountability. This is a central conservative insight, one that animates much of their hysterical opposition to health care reform, so it’s strange that conservatives seem to be the most resistant to applying it to executive overreach on intelligence. Broadening such an investigation beyond just the Bush administration may diminish some of that resistance, but I’m not sure how much.