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Light Reading For a Hot Summer

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, August 14, 2009

We're told the economy is on the mend, but we still see six-figure job losses every month. The health-care debate has become so polarized that even if it ends in breakthrough legislation, chances are that opponents will still be irate and supporters more exhausted than overjoyed. The deficit is gargantuan, bipartisanship is nonexistent, the prison at Guantanamo is still open, and the war in Afghanistan looks like a potential quagmire. The summer has become a bummer.

But anyone sliding into a slough of despond should keep things in perspective. Almost every day, there's some reminder of how far we've come since President Obama's inauguration -- and how much worse things could be.

On Thursday, there were two such aide-mémoires. The first was a report in The Post that Dick Cheney, in his upcoming book, plans to detail his behind-closed-doors clashes with George W. Bush. The story, by Post reporter Barton Gellman -- whose book "Angler" is the definitive account of how Cheney, as vice president, basically tried to rule the world -- quotes a source as saying that Cheney believes Bush went all soft on him during the second term.

That was when Bush ordered a halt to the waterboarding of terrorism suspects, closed the secret overseas CIA prisons, made diplomatic overtures to hostile states such as North Korea and Iran, and generally started to behave in ways that Cheney apparently deemed entirely too reasonable.

Gellman reported that Cheney, in the upcoming book, will also deal with what Time magazine has reported was an aggressive, in-the-president's-face campaign to persuade Bush to grant a full pardon to Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's former chief of staff who was convicted on perjury charges. Bush refused, and Cheney is said to still be steamed about it. It's useful to be reminded that for eight years, until Jan. 20, we had a vice president who thought his proper title should have been Caesar.

The other lesson on perspective we got Thursday came from the New York Times, which offered new details about the kind of America our would-be Caesar wanted to create. In a story by Times reporters David Johnston and Mark Mazzetti, Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, the CIA official who set up those secret CIA prisons, tells how he did it. Foggo is now serving a three-year prison sentence for his role in a contracting scandal that was not directly related to the "black site" detention centers, which owed their existence to his logistical skills.

Foggo marshaled the materiel to build three secret prisons -- one in Bucharest, Romania; one in another, unnamed former East Bloc city; and one in Morocco, according to the Times account. They were designed to be identical so that detainees would be disoriented when moved from one prison to another. Among the amenities Foggo provided were plywood-covered walls that would be less likely to cause serious injury when detainees were slammed into them.

Yes, until recently we had an administration that didn't believe in niceties such as due process and the rule of law. Our nation asserted the right not just to detain suspects indefinitely, but also to abuse them, to torture them, to make them "disappear" like victims of some banana republic junta.

I know that I'm not alone in wishing that Obama were moving more quickly to erase the stain that the Bush-Cheney excesses left on our national honor. I wish Guantanamo were already closed -- but Obama did set a date certain for shutting the place down and pledges to follow through. I'm troubled that he hasn't flatly rejected the concept of indefinite detention -- but he at least recognizes that some kind of due process needs to be involved.

I'm most troubled by Obama's resistance to a full-bore investigation of the Bush-Cheney transgressions. I can only hope that the president sees the error of his ways -- or at least that the probe of CIA interrogation abuses that Attorney General Eric Holder might launch is allowed to follow the evidentiary trail to whatever crimes it may reveal.

But that was then, and this is now, you say. Bush and Cheney are history. They were going to leave office in January anyway, no matter who replaced them.

That's true. But witness Sarah Palin's weird near-daily eruptions -- about imaginary death panels and the like -- and reflect on what the summer would have been like if she were serving as vice president of the United States.

I don't know about you, but I'm feeling much better about everything.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com

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