Will We Ever Learn the Truth?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, November 13, 2008; 12:39 PM

Will we ever find out what President Bush really did in our name?

There's so much we still don't know -- about torture, warrantless wiretapping, and the politicization of the Justice Department, just for starters.

Once Bush leaves office, will there be congressional investigations? Criminal investigations? Bipartisan commission investigations? Will President Obama make public all the relevant records? Will ex-president Bush still try to assert executive privilege? Will it work?

Charlie Savage explores some of these questions in today's New York Times. In 1953, Congress established "a precedent suggesting that former presidents wield lingering powers to keep matters from their administration secret," he writes.

"Now, as Congressional Democrats prepare to move forward with investigations of the Bush administration, they wonder whether that claim may be invoked again. . . .

"Topics of open investigations include the harsh interrogation of detainees, the prosecution of former Gov. Don Siegelman of Alabama, secret legal memorandums from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel and the role of the former White House aides Karl Rove and Harriet E. Miers in the firing of federal prosecutors. . . .

"[I]nvestigators hope that the Obama administration will open the filing cabinets and withdraw assertions of executive privilege that Bush officials have invoked to keep from testifying."

But, as Savage notes, it is not clear "how a President Barack Obama will handle such requests. Legal specialists said the pressure to investigate the Bush years would raise tough political and legal questions.

"Because every president eventually leaves office, incoming chief executives have an incentive to quash investigations into their predecessor's tenure. Mr. Bush used executive privilege for the first time in 2001, to block a subpoena by Congressional Republicans investigating the Clinton administration."

And even "if Mr. Obama decides to release information about his predecessor's tenure, Mr. Bush could try to invoke executive privilege by filing a lawsuit, said Peter Shane, a law professor at Ohio State University.

"In that case, an injunction would most likely be sought ordering the Obama administration not to release the Bush administration's papers or enjoining Mr. Bush's former aides from testifying. The dispute would probably go to the Supreme Court, Mr. Shane said."

Carrie Johnson writes in The Washington Post that Obama advisors charged with overhauling the Justice Department don't quite know where to begin, though "[t]opping the list of concerns is the Office of Legal Counsel, a once-obscure operation whose advice guides some of the government's most sensitive and controversial policies, from domestic wiretapping to the appropriateness of handing out public funding to religious groups.

"Many of the OLC's memos on interrogation and warrantless eavesdropping remain secret, even though lawmakers have clamored for their release. Democrats say they expect to find fresh surprises when they open the legal vault.

"Officials at interest groups, including the Center for American Progress and People for the American Way, have called on President-elect Barack Obama to devote significant attention to the legal office."

But Johnson writes that "Obama will have to do a careful balancing act. At a conference in Washington this week, former department criminal division chief Robert S. Litt asked that the new administration avoid fighting old battles that could be perceived as vindictive, such as seeking to prosecute government officials involved in decisions about interrogation and the gathering of domestic intelligence. Human rights groups have called for such investigations, as has House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.).

"'It would not be beneficial to spend a lot of time calling people up to Congress or in front of grand juries,' Litt said. 'It would really spend a lot of the bipartisan capital Obama managed to build up.'"

Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald, however, is outraged by Litt's argument: "There is a coherent way to argue against investigations and prosecutions of actions by Bush officials: one could argue that they weren't illegal. . . .

"But that's not what Litt is arguing here. Instead, his belief is that Bush officials should be protected from DOJ proceedings even if they committed crimes. And his reason for that is as petty and vapid as it is corrupt: namely, it is more important to have post-partisan harmony in our political class than it is to hold Presidents and other high officials accountable when they break the law.

"How is this anything other than a full-scale exemption issued to political leaders to break our laws? . . .

"To argue that new administrations should refrain from investigating crimes that were committed by past administrations due to the need to avoid partisan division is to announce that the rule of law does not apply to our highest political leaders. It's just as simple as that."

Meanwhile, Mark Benjamin writes for Salon: "With growing talk in Washington that President Bush may be considering an unprecedented 'blanket pardon' for people involved in his administration's brutal interrogation policies, advisors to Barack Obama are pressing ahead with plans for a nonpartisan commission to investigate alleged abuses under Bush.

"The Obama plan, first revealed by Salon in August, would emphasize fact-finding investigation over prosecution. It is gaining currency in Washington as Obama advisors begin to coordinate with Democrats in Congress on the proposal. . . .

"A common view among those involved with the talks is that any early effort to prosecute Bush administration officials would likely devolve quickly into ugly and fruitless partisan warfare. Second is that even if Obama decided he had the appetite for it, prosecutions in this arena are problematic at best. . . .

"Instead, a commission empowered by Congress would have the authority to compel witnesses to testify and even to grant immunity in exchange for information. Should a particularly ugly picture emerge, the option of prosecutions would still theoretically be on the table later, however unlikely."

Benjamin writes that constitutional scholars say issuing a blanket pardon "would be an unprecedented move." But "[t]here is no authority that can stop the president from doing so if he wishes, and there is no outside check or balance to revisit such a decision, however controversial it may be. . . .

"The politics of it would be fraught with danger, however, and could so blemish Bush's legacy that some doubt he would go so far. 'A pardon is an admission of guilt,' noted Donald Kettl, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania."

And as Benjamin notes, there are "some constitutional scholars who believe a pardon might actually facilitate more complete participation in a fact-finding commission, by removing the threat of looming liability."

A Commission Just for Gitmo?

Carold Rosenberg writes for the Miami Herald: "Two human rights groups urged the future Obama administration on Wednesday to appoint a well-funded commission with subpoena power to systematically examine the U.S. treatment of detainees at Guantánamo and elsewhere since the 9/11 attacks.

"Activists at the University of California, Berkeley, and the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights made the recommendation as they released a two-year study of the impact of U.S. detention and interrogation practices on former captives at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. . . .

"They say the group should tackle still-open questions surrounding the interrogation, detention and rehabilitation of former detainees, with an eye toward recommending criminal investigations if it uncovers 'any crimes at all levels of the chain of command.'"

A press release quotes Eric Stover, director of the UC Berkeley Human Rights Center and co-author of the report, saying: "We cannot sweep this dark chapter in our nation's history under the rug by simply closing the Guantánamo prison camp. The new administration must investigate what went wrong and who should be held accountable."

And Patricia Wald, who served on the U.S. Court of Appeals and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, is quoted as saying: "Carefully researched and devoid of rhetoric, the UC Berkeley report adds a new chapter to America's dismal descent into the netherworld of prisoner abuse since the tragic events of 9/11. It provides new insights into the lingering consequences of unjust detention."

Scooter Libby Watch

Meanwhile, MSNBC's Chris Matthews launched a pardon countdown of sorts on his show last night: "We spent many months here on Hardball focusing early attention on the role played by the vice president's office in pushing the case for the Iraq war, often the bogus case, especially the argument that Iraq was trying to buy nuclear materials in Africa.

"Well, last year, the vice president's chief of staff, Scooter Libby, was convicted of multiple felony counts for lying and obstructing justice in the matter. At the time, the prosecutors said there was a cloud hanging over the vice president himself.

"Well, having commuted Mr. Libby's sentence, the question is whether or not -- or whether when President Bush will grant Scooter Libby a full pardon. He has 69 days to do it."

The Summit Without a Leader

Glenn Kessler and Anthony Faiola write in The Washington Post: "World leaders will meet in Washington this weekend for a summit on the global financial crisis, the largest gathering of presidents and prime ministers here since NATO's 50th anniversary celebration in 1999. But overshadowing the emergency conference is a leadership vacuum that is fundamentally altering the balance of power.

"With President Bush about to fade into history and President-elect Barack Obama reluctant to signal his intentions, other nations are moving to set the agenda at the Saturday meeting of more than 20 heads of government. . . .

"'It's a huge opportunity for other countries to try to make than themselves more center stage than usual,' said Simon Johnson, former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund and a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. 'Normally there is a clear U.S. agenda that bangs against other agendas, and ordinarily the American president sets the tone. But Mr. Bush largely seems to have checked out on these issues.' . . .

William J. Antholis of the Brookings Institution tells The Post: "This meeting might be a patch on a tire losing some air. But at some point, we have to change the wheel."

David Lightman writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "This week's economic summit should offer President George W. Bush a chance to take a final, sentimental bow on the international stage and give historians the image of a man in charge.

"That's not going to happen, however.

"Instead, Bush limps into the meeting of 20 world leaders with a domestic approval rating of 24 percent in a new Ipsos/McClatchy Poll released Wednesday, worse than any president's showing since the advent of modern polling more than 60 years ago. . . .

"If anything, the Friday-Saturday Summit on Financial Markets and the World Economy 'puts Bush on the spot,' said Michael Mezey, a professor of political science at Chicago's DePaul University, because it could underscore his inability to make a difference."

Andrew Ward writes in the Financial Times: "Mr Bush hopes the event will partially recast him as a statesman presiding over an international response to the financial crisis, as opposed to the president who was asleep on the watch as Wall Street imploded.

"In reality, his main objective at the summit looks likely to be holding the line against European efforts to tame US-style 'jungle capitalism' with tougher international regulations.

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "Asserting the global financial crisis is 'not a failure of the free market system,' President George W. Bush on Thursday called on the world leaders meeting this weekend to agree on coordinated reforms that wouldn't overreach.

"'Government intervention is not a cure-all,' Bush was to say in New York, according to prepared remarks released in advance by the White House."

From the prepared remarks: "This is a decisive moment for the global economy. In the wake of the financial crisis, voices from the left and right are equating the free enterprise system with greed, exploitation, and failure. It is true that this crisis included failures -- by lenders and borrowers, by financial firms, by governments and independent regulators. But the crisis was not a failure of the free market system. And the answer is not to try to reinvent that system. It is to fix the problems we face, make the reforms we need, and move forward with the free market principles that have delivered prosperity and hope to people around the world."

Thomas Omestad writes for U.S. News: "The Group of 20 summit on Saturday in Washington has been dubbed a 'Bretton Woods II' by many who hope to see a 21st-century version of the historic breakthroughs that were finalized at a conference in 1944. That summit laid out a U.S.-dominated international financial system.

"But the results of this summit are likely to be far less sweeping. 'A substantive agreement is unlikely, given the lame duck administration in the U.S. and the participants' competing agendas,' argues Dan Alamariu, an analyst with the Eurasia Group consultancy. . . .

"The original Bretton Woods conference benefited from two years of preparation, and it ran for 22 days. Plans for Saturday's summit are still being finalized, and the official gathering itself is to last about six hours."

David Ignatius writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "The meeting is intended to send reassuring signals to global financial markets that a coordinated global rescue and recovery are on the way. And good luck with that! The danger is that the hastily organized summit, hosted by a lame-duck U.S. president, will also convey a subliminal message of discord over the future of the global economy."

The Bush Effect

Rebecca Christie and Matthew Benjamin write for Bloomberg about Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson: "[T]wo months before he leaves office, Paulson is a reduced figure, damaged by the financial-market meltdown that happened on his watch and by the government's struggles to respond to it.

"Like many others who have served in President George W. Bush's administration . . . Paulson, 62, will leave office casting a smaller shadow than when he arrived. . . .

"The latest blow was his announcement yesterday that the Treasury is abandoning his plan to buy devalued mortgage assets - - the one he unveiled dramatically just eight weeks ago, and defended against congressional and market skeptics."

Collision Watch

Lori Montgomery writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration signaled yesterday that it would reject a proposal by congressional Democrats to immediately advance $25 billion in government loans to ailing Detroit automakers.

"The White House and Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. made clear that while they are open to helping the auto industry, they are strongly opposed to Democrats' plans to carve cash out of the government's $700 billion financial rescue program. Despite those warnings, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said he would move ahead and draft legislation, setting up a final showdown with the Bush administration.

"Meanwhile, with no sign of a compromise between the White House and the Democrats who control Congress, hopes were dimming for a large spending package intended to revive the nation's broader economy. While House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) once spoke of dedicating as much as $150 billion to road projects, food stamps and aid to state governments, some Democrats now are talking of settling for a $6 billion proposal to extend unemployment benefits.

"That prospect has alarmed some major business organizations, which are stepping up pressure on lawmakers and the Bush administration to support not only a bailout for the auto industry but also a far-reaching stimulus package aimed at easing what economists say could be the worst recession since World War II."

Bush and Africa

Christine Simmons writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush, reflecting on his time in office, said Wednesday that 'one of the most uplifting' experiences of his nearly eight-year tenure has been witnessing the gains Africa has made in education and fighting hunger and disease.

"Speaking at a charity dinner, Bush called the work done for Africa by his administration and family 'a labor of love.' . . .

"His voice rising, Bush said the heart of the U.S. policy in Africa is knowing that its people have the 'talent and ambition and resolve to overcome' great challenges."

Bush's Interfaith Dialogue

Bush spoke briefly this morning at U.N. conference on interfaith dialogue, on the invitation of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, the event's chief sponsor.

"One of my core beliefs is that there is an Almighty God -- and that every man, woman, and child on the face of this Earth bears His image. Many years ago, faith changed my life. Faith has sustained me through the challenges and the joys of my Presidency. And faith will guide me for the rest of my days," Bush said, also noting: "Freedom is God's gift to every man, woman, and child -- and that freedom includes the right of all people to worship as they see fit."

Colum Lynch writes in The Washington Post: "The conference provides an opportunity for Saudi Arabia, which prohibits the public practice of non-Islamic faiths, to present a more tolerant image on the world stage. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers in the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, were Saudis. . . .

"Human rights groups, which maintain that Saudi Arabia is among the world's least tolerant countries, have voiced reservations about the interfaith initiative. European governments also expressed concern over recent attempts by Islamic governments to stifle criticism of Islam, even in the West. 'Freedom of religion cannot be achieved without freedom of speech, even if it is sometimes used to express derision,' said former French Prime Minister Alain Juppé, speaking on behalf of the European Union."

Cheney Watch

Michael A. Fletcher blogs for The Washington Post: "Vice President-elect Joe Biden is scheduled to meet tomorrow with Dick Cheney, the man he has called 'the most dangerous vice president we've had probably' in U.S. history.

"The session is scheduled to take place late tomorrow afternoon at the vice president's residence at the Naval Observatory. The two men are to be joined by their wives, Jill Biden and Lynne Cheney. Besides the meeting, the vice president-elect and his wife are scheduled to take a tour of their new digs."

Helen Thomas Watch

Cox News Service's Ken Herman videoblogs Helen Thomas's triumphant return to the White House briefing room yesterday, after more than six months during which she was recovering from illness. The combative 88-year-old Hearst columnist and White House fixture tells Herman: "I'm still as mean as ever."

Vacation Watch

Via Sheryl Stolberg of the New York Times, here are the latest presidential vacation numbers from CBS News's inveterate chronicler of all things presidential, Mark Knoller. As of Tuesday, Nov. 11: "Crawford ranch: 76 visits totaling all or part of 483 days; Camp David: 132 visits totaling all or part of 461 days; Kennebunkport: 11 visits totaling all or part of 43 days."

Stolberg writes: "By Mark's calculations, the president has been at one of these three locations for all or part of 987 days, and has been in office for 2920 days. That's 33.8 percent."

Bush surpassed the record of our hitherto most vacationing president ever, Ronald Reagan, way back in March.

Revisionism Watch

Warren Strobel blogs for McClatchy News Service: "The Bush administration will soon be history, but that hasn't stopped its senior members from trying to rewrite history for the next couple of months . . . and no doubt, long after.

"We were watching a video of CSPAN's interview with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when we had to suddenly stop and hit the rewind button. Rice said this, and we quote: 'When I go to Europe, I no longer see any difference in the view that a stable and secure Iraq is in everybody's interest, and that an Iraq that is democratic and in which Saddam Hussein, that brutal monster that caused three wars in the region, including dragging us in twice, that used -- who used weapons of mass destruction against his own people, that an Iraq that is democratic and friendly to the West is better for the Middle East. I don't see much disagreement about that.'

"Dragging us in twice?"

Once, maybe, Strobel writes. But "the record is now clear (as we reported at the time) that President George W. Bush had decided to go to war against Iraq in early 2002, just a few months after the 9/11 attacks. Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction or significant, operational ties to fundamentalist Islamic terrorists. The Bush administration dismissed Saddam's accounting of his WMD, ignored offers of mediation, and used bogus and false intelligence to make the case for war. It didn't let the U.N. Security Council or opposition from Europeans get in the way. All that makes for an odd definition of 'dragging us in.'"

The President Who Took it All Lying Down

Here are Sean Hannity and Karl Rove on Fox News on Monday night.

Hannity: "You know, one of the things that's upset me, and I -- and maybe you can -- as an insider, you can bring us into this world. I feel that in many ways President Bush is misunderstood. I mean a lot happened on his watch. 9/11 happened not long after he took the office.

"He inherited a recession. He had the negative impact on the economy on 9/11. We had seven years of pretty good economic -- you know, economic conditions, interest rates, inflation, unemployment, job creation was pretty high, it was really seven pretty good years. We've not been attacked since, but certainly events defined his presidency.

"Do you think that maybe, in retrospect if we can begin looking back now, that maybe the president didn't defend his positions hard enough in terms of people's perception and the way that he was diminished and demonized and insulted on a regular basis by the Democrats."

Rove: "Yes. Well, I'm having to grapple with some of these issues because I'm working on a book which will be out next year from Simon and Schuster, and I think you're right. I'm going to talk about this in the book, so let me keep a little bit of that for the book.

"But I've learned it's so -- looking back now, a sobering lesson, that a president needs to be careful in his language, but he cannot allow the kind of brittle and brutal attacks that were made on this president at certain times to go unanswered, and we probably made a mistake at times."

Late Night Humor

Stephen Colbert plays a clip from that Hannity and Rove exchange and chimes in: "Yes! You need to answer those attacks! An eye for an eye! A tooth for a tooth! An 'outing a CIA agent' for a 'critical editorial in the Times'! A 'right to wiretap you' for a 'having a phone'!"

Web Humor

Slate recuts Barneycam into a lame-duck dog diary.

Cartoon Watch

Jimmy Margulies on the undoing, Nick Anderson on Bush's historic moment, John Sherffius on Bush and the national parks, and Lee Judge on the Bush approach to Wall Street.

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