Opinion Focus

Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, July 29, 2008; 1:00 PM

Washington Post opinion columnist Eugene Robinson was online Tuesday, July 29 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.

Discussion Group: Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood

The transcript follows.

Archive: Eugene Robinson discussion transcripts


Eugene Robinson: Welcome, everyone, and thanks for stopping by. I guess we'll never run out of things to talk about. Today's column is about torture -- call me crazy, but I'm still against it -- although the Question of the Day comes from a different story about Bush administration abuses. I'm sure it's a question we've all asked ourselves many times, just as political hack Monica Goodling asked it of candidates for supposedly nonpartisan jobs at the Justice Department: "What is it about George W. Bush that makes you want to serve him?"


Wilmington, N.C.: Mr. Robinson, I agree 100 percent with your column today that Bush's legacy is as the torture president. It's actually remarkable that picking a single policy as his legacy is such an easy call, considering the all-you-can-eat buffet of lawlessness, secrecy, and incompetence to choose from. But as cynical as I have become regarding this administration, I am truly dumbfounded by the notion of preemptive pardons. Is there really such a thing? Does the president actually have this power? If so, then you wouldn't need expansive legalese to encompass every potential crime. The president could simply say, "I preemptively pardon everyone that might ever be indicted for anything." Am I crazy or is this a possibility?

washingtonpost.com: A Torture Paper Trail (Post, July 29)

Eugene Robinson: Yes, the president can issue preemptive pardons. Upon taking office, Gerald Ford preemptively pardoned Richard Nixon. It might take some doing to make such a pardon airtight, however.


Alexandria, Va.: Thanks for today's column. The phrase I found most shocking was "since appointed to the federal bench" in relation to Bybee. I wonder if any administration has exceeded this administration's record of rewarding people for failure and crime?

I'm in the "turn the page" camp, really hoping for an Obama administration to come in and start solving problems, and I can't think of anything that would be more of a drag than a bunch of hearings reviewing the behavior of the Bush administration. But I don't see how we can let all this go.

Eugene Robinson: I do not think the next president, whether it's Obama or McCain, should be allowed to just turn the page. Torture is just, to me, the most egregious of the Bush administration's transgressions. But we also need to know the full truth of the domestic surveillance, the full truth of our detention policies -- and also the full truth of the extent to which this administration has politicized ostensibly non-political agencies of our government. If the Justice Department is dancing to the tune of one political party, to the exclusion of others, we all should be worried.


Missouri: In your column today you say, "International law is something else entirely, however, and I imagine that some of those involved in this sordid interlude might want to be careful in choosing their vacation spots. I'd avoid The Hague, for example." I've heard you hint at this before, but beyond something I think I read in the New Yorker or a passing mention on Olbermann, I've never heard this issue mentioned in quite this way. I think it should be discussed more, because it illustrates so well the gravity with which the rest of the world takes the issue. Maybe it would help those who bought into this hair-splitting on torture think again. Then again, maybe not. Please elaborate on the topic.

Eugene Robinson: In other countries, there are people who believe that Bush administration officials have committed war crimes in prosecuting the "war on terror" -- and there have been demands, not yet rising to the level where they can't be ignored, for governments to take action against individuals who were involved. If a prosecutor in, say, Spain decided that there was evidence to prosecute Donald Rumsfeld, who happened to be vacationing in Barcelona, he or she could try to order an arrest. That's what I meant.


Fort Lauderdale, Fla.: Given the importance of the torture debate, and now the newest revelations regarding the Attorney General's office, why has the Post and so many other mainstream media outlets been so slow to cover the impeachment debate? The hearings the other day were relevant to the discussion, and half of those present on the committee supported Impeachment - but there was hardly any discussion of it anywhere.

Eugene Robinson: Because impeachment isn't going to happen. It just isn't. The House leadership has made that decision, not the media.


Washington, D.C.: Police investigators allege that Jim David Adkisson went on a shooting rampage in a Tennessee Unitarian church "because of its liberal teachings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country." Upon executing a warrant, police found three books authored by Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Michael Savage in Adkisson's residence.

Had Adkisson's favorite books been the Koran and other Islamic texts and his cause been to kill Christians because of the West's threat to Islam, wouldn't we be hearing a ton of coverage about his rampage as an act of terrorism? What does the lack of coverage say about popular and official impressions about what terrorism is?

washingtonpost.com: Police: Man shot churchgoers over liberal views (Post, July 29)

Eugene Robinson: Well, obviously information about the man's political views hasn't been suppressed, nor has the list of his fave commentators. I think you make a good point, though, about how we use the word "terrorism." This certainly seems to me to have been an act of politically motivated terrorism.


Chicago: With all due respect to Wilmington -- and I have worked on Guantanamo litigation -- I don't think it's so clearcut that torture is Bush's main legacy.

This DoJ report hits at what I think is his real legacy, the shameless erosion of our government's integrity. Torture is but one example. Everywhere you look, from hiring practices to science to the economy to intelligence to military conduct, these guys have rejected the rule of law and thrown aside whatever notions of fundamental fairness we thought applied. Sure there have always been scandals, but now for the first time our government no longer has any inherent credibility or authority. It's virtually unprecedented in the modern era.

Eugene Robinson: I can't fundamentally argue with your point. This administration has done so much that's beyond the pale that the tendency is to get "outrage fatigue." For me, though, there's something uniquely horrifying -- and treasonous, really -- about the idea of the United States as a nation that embraces torture.


Washington, D.C.: Dancing to the tune of one political party? Gene, that's the party that was elected. Why shouldn't they be able to hire fellow conservatives? How many republicans can you name that were hired by the Clinton Justice Department?

Eugene Robinson: Come on. There are political jobs in all the agencies, and they get filled by the party in charge. Everyone understands that. What's new is practice of filling nonpolitical "career" jobs on a partisan basis. That's what Monica Goodling and Kyle Sampson were doing, at the behest of the White House -- and what prior administrations, Republican and Democratic, did not do.


Washington, D.C.: Sen Stevens has just been indicted. This is pretty big news.

washingtonpost.com: Senator Indicted on 7 Counts of Making False Statements (Post, July 29)

Eugene Robinson: It's always big news when a sitting senator is indicted on corruption charges.


Seattle, Wash.: Good column about a well-covered subject, but I do have one issue. People talk with their mouths, but vote with their feet, and McCain has talked about torture but hasn't voted against it. I find this particularly troublesome considering that the methods he suffered under are being used by his government.

Eugene Robinson: I, too, am troubled by the fact that John McCain did not vote to extend the absolute prohibition on torture to cover the CIA. I don't accept his explanation for that vote. In fairness, he did speak out forthrightly against torture from the beginning -- at least until he started running for president -- and he does not mince words about the practices he considers illegal under current law, even for the CIA. These include waterboarding, which McCain acknowledges is torture.


Re: Hiring political appointees to career jobs: Eugene, What the earlier poster does not seem to know is that unlike all other administrations, Democratic and Republican, this administration engaged in illegal activities in hiring for non-political appointee posts. Let me state that again for the record. Asking a candidate about their political beliefs for a job that is specifically classified as a career post is illegal and this administration, unlike any other administration of either party, engaged in this illegal activity routinely.

Eugene Robinson: Well said. Thanks.


Winchester, Va.: How did the Democratic Party lose to Bush twice? Both elections seemed eminently winnable and they just seemed to stand by and watch. Why didn't Clinton come out stronger for Gore? Why didn't the Dems strike back at the obvious Swift Boat lies?

Eugene Robinson: Bush was a better candidate than he is a president. Karl Rove understood the electoral map better than his adversaries. The Clintons and the Gores did not end on good terms, and Gore made what I think was the wrong call in deciding not to use Clinton more. The Kerry campaign knew it had to respond to the Swift Boat ads but moved too slowly.


Vice President: McCain would seem to benefit if he could pick a minority candidate, but none are being mentioned. Your thoughts?

Eugene Robinson: I'm convinced that Colin Powell doesn't want to run for office, and I finally believe Condoleezza Rice when she says she's not running this time (and she's too closely associated with the decision to go to war in Iraq anyway). So who's he gonna call?


Richmond: While I am in agreement with most of your article, I do believe it would be a dangerous precedent for a new administration to open up criminal proceedings on the previous one. This would jeopardize the truly great achievement of American democracy, the peaceful transition of power every 4 (or 8) years. Remember that one of the reasons Caesar crossed the Rubicon was because his legal immunity from prosecutions was getting ready to expire.

I also think you let Congress (and the American people) off the hook too easily. Everyone knew what Bush was doing to Al'Queda detainees back in 2001-2002 and the vast majority either supported it or acquiesced to it. Democrats did everything they could to avoid debating national security and the administrations bills such as the Patriot Act in 2002 because they believe it was politically unpopular to oppose the President. We are all responsible for what happens in a democracy, especially considering Bush was reelected in 2004 after most of this came out.

Eugene Robinson: I don't believe the next administration (Obama or McCain) is going to haul Bush administration officials up on charges by the truckload. I do believe it's possible that some criminal acts clearly deserving of prosecution might be uncovered -- and we'll know them when we see them. The essential first step, in my view, is to find out what happened. If Bush were to issue preemptive pardons, ironically he would be aiding the discovery process -- without threat of prosecution, officials couldn't claim the Fifth and would have to testify.


Baltimore: The word of the week for Republicans describing Obama's European trip was "presumptuous". What other synonyms for "uppity" can we expect the Republicans to dust off?

Eugene Robinson: Arrogant, entitled, preening... I don't think they'll actually use the word "uppity," though, although you can never be sure.


Asking a candidate about their political beliefs for a job that is specifically classified as a career post is illegal and this administration: Does this mean that those applicants who were highly qualified but illegally eliminated on partisan grounds can sue to get the jobs they were denied?

Eugene Robinson: An excellent piece on today's op-ed page by former deputy attorney general former deputy attorney general Jamie Gorelick makes the point that Justice needs to "offer opportunities to those who were improperly denied them." It seems to me that there might be grounds for lawsuits, but I'm not a lawyer. Maybe somebody else knows?


Madison, Wisc.: Dear Mr. Robinson,

Thanks for your columns. When I read about the U.S. torture program (ie, Dahlia Lithwick's recent work in Slate, Jane Mayer's book), I am struck by the number of references to Jack Bauer and '24.' In the GOP primaries, candidates cited Jack Bauer during debates. This character's name was even mentioned by a Supreme Court justice! I can't understand why lawyers and judges are using a TV character as a role model. I'm a scientist but would never justify my work with, "But that's how Spock did this experiment." Do you have any comments on how this ticking-time-bomb scenario became the standard reference for policy?

Eugene Robinson: Beats me. Do these people think "24" is a documentary or something?


Rochester, N.Y.: Any thoughts on the Ted Stevens indictment? Promise me that Dana is working on his "series of tubes" jokes...

Eugene Robinson: I'm sorry, but I don't have anything particularly clever to say about the Stevens indictment. Milbank, where are you?


Eugene Robinson: Well, folks, my time is up. Thanks for tuning in, and I'll see you again next week.


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