Will the Bush-Cheney Check Ever Be Paid? Maybe.


The United States government has so far resisted a wide inquiry into intelligence collection and special operations programs that, in ordinary times, might have brought down governments. But European countries have launched several inquiries; the European Union continues to look at several flash points, and the United Kingdom is about to launch a wide-ranging probe into its security services misconduct during the Iraq-Afghanistan period, with special attention paid to whether the UK was complicit in torture.  

Neither President Obama nor his Attorney General, Eric Holder, were particularly interested in re-litigating the past because both believed it would interfere with their attempts to formulate a coherent and sustainable national security framework for the post-9/11 era. But more than a year and a half in, there is no framework. There are broad principles, a national security strategy, and an incredibly sticky mess of court cases, open wounds, and rancorous internal policy debates. Most of the people responsible for executing the controversial secret programs remain in government, albeit under new management.

There have been some notable shifts for the good: after an early period of tension, congressional oversight of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency is as robust as it's ever been. Perhaps the oversight is not sufficient, but it is better than it was, and that is unquestionably, in the biblical, essential sense, a good thing.

Putting aside the question of current policies, including the CIA's drone program in Pakistan, and the expansion of special forces activity across the world -- or perhaps because of these things --  the administration has not done enough to close the book on the past. Former Vice President Cheney is dying of heart failure, occasioning a re-examination of his life and beliefs and actions. Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush are writing books. Stanley McChrystal, the general who conducted America's secret wars, is now out of a job and is in a position, should he so desire, to talk. The ACLU continues to file lawsuits demanding transparency.  (They lost one court case today, when a judge ruled that the CIA can keep its interrogation tapes secret even if they contain illegal behavior.)

Reporters like Seymour Hersh are writing books about the Bush-Cheney administration that will almost certainly re-open debates that powerful interests want closed. What happens when the British government's investigation crosses paths with American intelligence or special forces activities? Both governments often used the same facilities to do the same things at the same time. If the UK finds wrongdoing, then what? If the UK provides a measure of justice in the form of compensation to torture victims, will our government be moved to do the same thing?

The one modest stab at accountability -- a review of select and limited CIA interrogation events -- was set up in a way that limits its potential to spill over into something larger. House and Senate committee investigations and reports from inspectors general on wiretapping and CIA activities have produced ... well, not much of anything, at least in their unclassified versions.

There are two conceptions of justice at war here: justice as accountability, where people who do bad things will be punished, no matter the collateral consequences to the republic, versus justice as better policies, no matter who goes free or what message that sends to the world.  These are extreme descriptions and there are adherents to a middle ground, but the administration has chosen the latter course, believing that American interests are better served by good faith efforts rather than what they assume will be show trials and investigations that reduce the bandwidth of Congress to get other things done. But events are pushing against this position.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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