First Blog

This is my first Atlantic blog.

Hope I don't mess up.  The reputation of my brother (who is an editor at this magazine) is at stake.

First of all, happy 90th birthday to Pete Seeger.   For all of you who haven't seen it, take a look at Seeger leading the Obama inauguration crowd - and Bruce Springsteen - in a sing-a-long of "This Land Is Your Land," complete with the two oft-excised verses:

As I went walking I saw a sign there 
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing." 
But on the other side it didn't say nothing 
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, 
By the relief office I seen my people; 
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking 
Is this land made for you and me?

Here's the link:

My favorite moment is after this link ends when Seeger - then only 89 years young - hops off the stage.  Another gig.  Gotta go!

What follows is a blurt (slightly longer than a blog) I started in response to a piece that David Broder wrote in the Washington Post on April 26.  I should have posted it right away but I was interrupted by a sudden production trip to New Mexico for a film I am doing on Lance Armstrong. 

(Here's my favorite sign from the half-hippie/half rancher culture of Gila, New Mexico):


 It's a poster advertising a "Gully workshop" - a special class to learn how to build better gullies on your ranch. 


Anyway, the concerns of the rant below are related to torture, the subject of a film I recently wrote and directed called "Taxi to the Dark Side."  In recent days, I have been surprised - and thrilled - that this issue has not gone away.  Obama had threatened to move on - looking forward, not back, as he said.  But I really think that is a dangerous mistake.  We can't move forward until we reckon with our past.  Thanks to the ACLU and, for the moment, the Obama Administration, that reckoning is ongoing with the release of key documents.  And the Senate Armed Services Committee has produced a very important report that shows ever more what many have suspected and charged: torture was not the work of a few bad apples.  It  was a conscious policy by the Bush Administration (though the "T-word" was never used") that, once set in motion, mutated and migrated throughout the world like a virulent virus. There has been much written by esteemed thinkers and writers about the need for a truth commission or for prosecutions.  For some time, I didn't see the need to add to the ongoing commentary.

But, for some reason, when I saw the Broder piece I flew into a fury.  I don't know exactly why.  Perhaps because Mr. Broder is considered such a Washington sage and because his expressed view epitomized all that is pitifully shallow in the professional political culture of Washington, DC.  In essence, he said that there should be no further investigation because, in essence, what the Bush Administration did was "just politics." Any further investigation would be a kind of political retribution that would just end up scapegoating a few bad apples.  Therefore, said Broder, we should just drop the whole matter and move on.

Well, I have to say that kind of logic made me ill.  So rather than mess up my work station with a bilious discharge, I wrote what follows. 

David Broder's editorial, "Stop Scapegoating," is exactly what is wrong with Washington.  He can no longer see matters of principle because his Beltway sunglasses are so dark that everything takes on the shade of partisan politics. In his piece he calls on Obama to resist the temptation to indict Bush Administration officials or even to support a truth commission on torture because in that direction lies political warfare.

Well, first of all, Obama shouldn't indict anyone.  That's a job for the Department of Justice - or, perhaps better, a special prosecutor.

But Broder should look around.  This is not an issue of left and right; it's an issue of right and wrong.  There are many principled Republicans who have been rightly appalled by the war the Bush Administration pursued a policy of torture.  But Broder would turn the issue into a partisan political one, instead of a matter of principle and law.

Also, he makes the cynical assertion that, since senior officials will never be held to account, only underlings will be convicted.  So, his logic goes, rather than punish a few minnows for the crimes of bigger fish, better to let everyone off the hook.

It is true - and ironic, considering Broder's argument - that the Bush Administration did its own scapegoating: netting minnows like Lynndie England in the Abu Ghraib investigations, while consciously avoiding looking up the chain of command. But as more documents are revealed, and more investigations are conducted, we can see that Abu Ghraib was a symptom of reckless policy of torture and abuse pursued by the Bush Administration and its political appointees in the Pentagon.

If members of the Bush Administration have committed crimes, then they should be held to account. No one is above the law, no matter how much time they have spent inside the DC beltway.

But let's take this one step further - Bush torture policy was not just about breaking the law.  It was about breaking the law to pursue partisan policy.  The recent report by the Senate Armed Services Committee confirms that the Bush Administration, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, was obsessed with establishing a connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda.  When traditional intelligence gathering techniques failed to establish this link, Bush officials turned to torture, with disastrous results.

The most terrifying example, described in my film, "Taxi to the Dark Side," is the case of Ibn al-Sheik al-Libi, a Libyan paramilitary trainer for Al Qaeda. When al-Libi was captured he was interrogated by the FBI's counter-terrorism unit at the Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan.  Using traditional interrogation techniques employed by experienced interrogators, al-Libi revealed good, actionable intelligence, according to Jack Cloonan, a special agent for the FBI's Bin Laden Unit.  But it wasn't the "intelligence" that the Bush Administration wanted to hear.  So the CIA took over, wrapped al-Libi in duct tape and stuffed him in a small plywood box ("for his own protection") and shipped him to Egypt where he was tortured until he "confessed" to a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq.  This information was used by Colin Powell in has famous UN speech to make the case for the invasion of Iraq.  Only one problem: his torture-induced testimony was utterly false, as the CIA later admitted.

In the case of al-Libi, the Bush team used torture to manufacture a rationale to invade Iraq.  That would seem to be something worth investigating further. (And now we have testimony from other members of the FBI's counter-terrorism unit noting that, after the FBI got key information from Abu Zubaydah - including the identity of Khalid Sheik Mohammed - the CIA stepped in and waterboarded zubaydah 83 times which produced false alarms of attacks that were politically useful for the Bush Administration but often wildly inaccurate.) So, it appears that the Bush Administration used torture to manufacture lies because the truth wasn't giving them what they wanted.  Instead "the torture team" reached into the dark closet of "enhanced interrogation techniques," such as sleep deprivation, stress positions and waterboarding, that the former Soviet Union and 50s-era Communist China had used to extract false confessions for political purposes.

In that sense, Broder is unintentionally on to something.  What the Bush Administration did was political.  But it was also, in my view, criminal: using the power of the state to enforce their narrow partisan views - views, in this case, that resulted in American casualties of more than 4000 dead and 29,000 wounded (not to mention the deaths of over 100,000 Iraqis.) That's supposed to be what we have the rule of law for - to prevent politicians from corruptly abusing their power.

Yet in Broder's view, the decision to torture involves political actors and, as such, is nothing more than part of the clubby, inside-the-beltway tug of war between Republicans and Democrats. Torture has never been that kind of issue.  Inside the congress and outside, many Republicans have been offended by the Bush Administration's policies.  It is true that Cheney and his myrmidons did use torture (while carefully avoiding the term itself) as a campaign platform.  But their posture on torture was not a Republican position, per se.  (And let's be honest: there were plenty of Democrats who were silent enablers of torture.)  It was the action plan of a small cabal obsessed with neoconservative ideas of foreign policy and notions of unchecked executive power.    So Obama would be making a mistake if he ever characterizes torture as a Republican issue.  (That seems to be the implication of Broder's piece however: let torture go unpunished precisely because it was a Republican political platform.) Instead, Obama would be wise to embrace the notion of a  non-partisan truth commission with subpoena power that would draw members, outside the beltway, from the ranks of judges, scholars, human rights groups, journalists and especially ex-military.  No politicians. 

In closing, Broder said this: " some point, if he is at all a man of honor, George W. Bush would feel bound to say: That was my policy. I was the president. If you want to indict anyone for it, indict me.  Is that where we want to go?"

If we don't have the courage to go there, then we're being taken for a ride in a taxi to another kind of dark side: Orwell territory - that haunted place where crime and punishment is only at the service of the party in power.