White House Watch: Will Obama Investigate Bush Administration?

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, April 22, 2009 1:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Watch for washingtonpost.com.

He was online Wednesday, April 22 at 1 p.m. ET to take your questions about his blog and the latest White House news.

Dan is also moderator of the White House Watchers discussion group and deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to another White House chat. What's on your mind? Are you, like me, kind of distracted by the whole torture thing? Or are you more focused on the legislative battles to come on Obama's ambitious domestic budget proposals? Or maybe you think our president is weak. I'm eager to respond to your questions and comments.


Detroit: Hi Dan -- I'm somewhat taken aback by Dick Cheney's insistence on perpetuating the attention given to the previous administration's misdeeds regarding torture - what's the motive? Is there a sense that the other shoe is about to drop in this matter -- as McClatchy reported: that harsh interrogation techniques were used to justify the Iraq invasion? Pres. Obama seems reluctant to want to pursue the matter to this conclusion, as it portends a vast all-encompassing investigation of BushCo -- will it get that far?

washingtonpost.com: McClatchy: Report: Abusive tactics used to seek Iraq-al Qaida link

Dan Froomkin: Yeah, I don't quite get it myself. But here's a theory: If Cheney and the dead-enders aren't constantly out there on the hustings, insisting that what they did wasn't torture, and that there was good reason for it, then over time the media narrative, and the national narrative, won't have "two sides" anymore.

That said,

Mark Danner

would argue it's all about setting the stage for vindication -- and villification of Obama -- if there is a terrorist attack on Obama's watch.


Palo Alto, Calif.: It seems Obama has been walking the Administration's position back from the hardline Rahm took on Sunday morning of "no prosecutions." But Obama clear does not want to be "distracted" by prosecutions. My question is: what's wrong with a Special Prosecutor? Appoint someone to go where the law and facts takes him/her. Have that prosecutor apply the law to the facts and make an objective judgment.

This would get the politics out of it as much as is possible. And it seems that the public is going to need some type of investigation, especially in light of today's disclosure that the torture was planned as a means to provide cover for the Iraq war. Thoughts?

Dan Froomkin: Here's my guess. Obama truly has no appetite for "looking backward" as he has so much on his plate "looking forward." So he was never going to be the guy pushing for an investigation. On the other hand, he wasn't going to be the guy who actually blocked an investigation, either. He thought he had found an OK compromise public statement, by releasing memos he was indeed morally bound to release, while making clear that the front-line guys who did what they were told was illegal wouldn't be prosecuted. This was clever because even the most ferocious advocates of prosecution are looking way up the chain of command.

Then, I think, Rahm Emanuel stepped on it. His statement on Sunday seemed to clearly indicate that all prosecutions were off the table. Not only was that not Obama's view, but it's not the White House's call to make.

Scott Horton

blogs for the Daily Beast, the statement "violated well-established rules separating political figures in the White House from decisions about active criminal cases."

Then Gibbs, who lest we forget reports to Obama through Emanuel, chose not to disagree publicly with his boss.

And Obama had no choice but to clarify a position that he had been trying to leave vague.

That's my best guess.

As for a special prosecutor, having run washingtonpost.com's coverage of Whitewater and Lewinsky, and having followed Plamegate quite meticulously, I can assure you that there is nothing less politically polarizing in this current climate. Which, mind you, shouldn't make any difference, but it does.


Chicago: Dan -

You've been roasted by certain regular posters on your blog about being "in the tank" for President Obama. However, you've taken President Obama to task on several issues where (more liberal) candidate Obama's rhetoric appears to have been shunted aside by (more conservative) Presidnet Obama's actions - specifically (1) the Obama administration's defense of the Bush administration's desire to retain certain "unitary executive" powers, and (2) castigating the President for his wanting "move on" with respect to the Cheney-Bush torture programs.

I, for one, see you as wanting to to keep shining the light on whichever administration is in White House. Thanks for continuing to speak truth to power!

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I don't pretend to treat Obama the same way I treated Bush. They are vastly different presidents, with vastly different strengths and weaknesses. And quite frankly, Bush was in many ways a disaster, while we're still trying to figure out this Obama fellow.

What I hope readers do find consistent over the course of the years has been a focus on such issues as transparency, hypocrisy, honesty, and issues of human dignity. Those are issues that I care about as a journalist, not as a partisan.


Arlington, Va.: If there are prosecutions related to the torture memos and the Senate report, who exactly could be charged with a crime and what specific crime would they be charged with? I agree that it appears laws have been broken, but I'm not clear about which specific laws are relevant?

Dan Froomkin: I'm not a lawyer. But what it seems to me you would be looking for are the people at the highest level of the chain of command who willfully and knowingly chose to violate the law. Any law. The "smoking gun" would be an e-mail from, say, David Addington to John Yoo saying, I know this is illegal (i.e. violates the domestic torture statutes), but write that memo anyway. Ha ha. Like Addington would ever do that on a storeable medium.


Champaign, Ill.: Hi Dan. One thing I don't see mentioned by Cheney, Rove, and other racing to defend the use of torture is that approving these methods for use on people we capture is tacit approval for those methods to be used on our captured personnel in the future.

Dan Froomkin: They, of course, would argue that is not the case, and that these were special cases. But I think this is one of the most important points in the torture debate that doesn't get repeated nearly enough.


Middleton, Wis.: David Addington was a chief architect of the torture policy. What's the likelihood he will somehow be held accountable?

Dan Froomkin: See above about Addington and storeable media.

No, seriously, I think that the more we learn, the more we learn that Addington was absolutely the prime mover for a lot of the greatest excesses of the Bush years. I think it's entirely possible that a full, public understanding of what happened will bring great shame upon him and, possibly, even a criminal conviction.

Then, of course, the big question would be was he just acting as the public face of his boss, the vice president. But one thing I can assure you of: Like Scooter Libby, he'll never flip.


Dan Froomkin: My "main post" of the day is now out: Torturing for Propaganda Purposes. Go read it and tell me what you think. Understated? Overstated?


Arlington, Va.: You seem to have a definite bias in your coverage of Obama vs. your coverage of Bush (this is coming from someone who was/is a major critic of Bush and his admin). When I asked you about your coverage of Bush and bias before you went on a screed about how you refused to be a stenographer for the Bush White House.

Yet now in your fawning coverage of Obama, you seem to do just that. Point in case would be the confidential legal arguments made by the Obama admin on the rendition case out west. When this news broke your post was two links to other writers. No outrage or indignation (I am sure both would have been present had this been Bush).

I urge you to take a long look at your coverage. You seem to be little more then another Hannity, Olbermann, or O'Reilly, obscuring issues with personal feelings and partisan outrage.

(BTW - I voted for Obama).

Dan Froomkin: Look, sure I have biases. And these two guys are not the same. See my answer above. But dear me, please don't call me Hannityesque.

If your rendition example were the rule, you might be able to make the case for fawning. But the reason I haven't weighed in on rendition is that it confuses me, on many levels. I'm not really sure what Obama's policy is, and I think there is a powerful argument to be made that rendition, in certain circumstances, and with a *sincere* vow not to turn people over to countries where they will be abused, sometimes might make sense for the world's only superpower. The coverage I've seen has not been very clear.

But on many related issues, I think I've been quite adamant about the need for Obama to live up to his word and his stated principles.


RE: Champaign, Ill.: "One thing I don't see mentioned by Cheney, Rove, and other racing to defend the use of torture is that approving these methods for use on people we capture is tacit approval for those methods to be used on our captured personnel in the future."

Well, I think this is understood by most as a moot point, as al Qaeda and other terrorist groups do not even pretend to abide by any type of human rights or prisoner treatment guideline. If we were to swear off torture it is not as if AQ would then say they would stop torturing/killing captured Americans. We are playing by rules, somewhat, against a enemy who has no rules. I think Obama addressed this a bit at his talk at Langley.

Dan Froomkin: Yes. Or, as Cheney so delicately put it on Fox News last night: "I don't think there are members of al Qaeda out there around the world this morning that say, 'Oh, gee whiz, isn't that great? Barack Obama and his administration are no longer going to ask our guys tough questions when they are captured. Now, maybe we won't behead their people when they capture them.'"

But I don't think anyone's suggesting that. I think the concern is about next time we get into a conflict with a state player that, like us, is ostensibly committed to the rule of law and the Geneva Conventions.

And it's also about setting an example, and hypocrisy. How can we now urge other countries not to torture their terrorists?


Fredericksburg: Isn't it obvious that any president, regardless of party or ideology, will defend the prerogatives of the executive branch?

Dan Froomkin: It always has been thus.

There was some thought that Bush had so overreached that Obama would willingly give up some of the most outrageous "prerogatives" such as, for instance, the invoking of an absolute and unappeallable "state secrets" privilege upon the mere assertion that national security is at risk. See

Obama's State Secrets Overreach


And Obama, on his second day, agreed to restrictions that Bush never would have. But as time goes by, you get the sense that the office is having an effect on him.


Tysons Corner, Va.: Hi Dan - Like you, I am very distracted by this whole torture thing. I would love Cheney, Addison and Yoo to be held accountable for what they have done. Throw in Rumsfeld and Bush and you've really made my day. However, I am really worried that there is no way to avoid this deteriorating into partisan politics.

Sure, a special prosecutor is one solution, but do they really work? Or do they just run up millions of dollars in costs and cries of partisanship (think Rush) that only cause the country to split more? I understand Obama wanting to look ahead. After all, we have so many things (economy, health care, global warming to name a few) that must be resolved now before they get worse.

I also understand the need to know what happened, so that it never happens again. But do you honestly think we can do it without pulling ourselves further and further apart? If so, how?

Dan Froomkin: First of all, I don't really care. That's not my job. I'm a journalist and I want to know what happened, I don't really care about the consequences.

But I do think it's possible that an investigation could take place that didn't tear us apart, at least no more than we are already.

For instance, isn't is at least conceivable that a panel of respected public figures could be assembled that would inspire confidence more or less across the political spectrum?

I'm actually not sure myself, but I wouldn't rule it out.

As for a special prosecutor, if career prosecutors decide that laws have been broken -- and it's hard to see how you could argue that they haven't -- then some sort of prosecution may be required, and a special prosecutor is the best way to insulate it from politics. (Although as I wrote above, I'm not pretending it wouldn't be perceived as political.)


Los Angeles: What's the likelihood that claims that waterboarding 9/11 masterminds produced "high value information" are misinformation? The Bush Administration used WMDs to justify the Iraq invasion/war and found none (this claim blew up in their face). Did Cheney's CIA supporters concoct stories that info from waterboarding enabled the U.S. to abort other 9/11-style attacks? Certainly there was pressure to justify using torture and it wouldn't be a first for the CIA during wartimes to produce propaganda "to help the cause." Has any news organization or the Obama Administration verified these stories independently or are we left to take Cheney's word?

Dan Froomkin: Ah. Thank you. You've put that very well. I would even go so far as to argue that whatever torture defenders say about torture should be presumptively assumed to be misinformation, until or unless it can be independently verified. These guys have no credibility left.


Yelm, Wash.: Obama's challenge will be to depoliticize the prosecution of crimes resulting from the Bush/Cheney administration's hyper-politicization of everything they came into contact with. Of course the timing of how the various stories break could be at the heart of the matter. Airing the GOP dirty laundry during mid-term or general election primaries would seem ideal.

Dan Froomkin: I simply don't think Obama is capable of depoliticizing things nearly as fast as the Bush/Cheney team politicized them. Nor is he capable of weaning the national media off its obsession with conflict.


Herndon, Va.: Can you comment on the op-ed piece in yesterday's Post that claimed that the documentation released by the Obama administration proves that the prisoners that were tortured actually DID provide valuable information? Do these claims jive with what you know?

washingtonpost.com: The CIA's Questioning Worked

Dan Froomkin: I addressed this in yesterday's post, Call Cheney's Bluff which also linked to an earlier post debunking Thiessen's previous op-ed, which touched on many of the same notes.

Like I said above, I think it's safe to presume that this is all misinformation, until proven otherwise. And believe me, none of it's been remotely proven, more the contrary.


Northern Virginia: What many people lose sight of when they talk about "The CIA" is that this is an organization composed of many groups, sub-groups, and sub-sub-groups all doing different things and few talking to each other. Even those within one of the many small cliques disagree with each other.

For example, that the crowd who greeted Obama cheered wildly doesn't reflect any kind of "CIA Opinion" because this group was composed of individuals willing to stand in line for 2 hours for a quick glimpse of the President.

On the other hand, individual posters who sign themselves as "Langley" or whatnot, do not speak (and the should know better than to imply otherwise) for the Agency. Nobody does.

Some think the release of the memos set a bat precedent. Some viewed it as a breath of fresh air. Some hate the fact that these techniques are now useless. Some rejoice. Some revel in the dark and sinister ambiance of the Agency as if they are modern-day privateers. Some cringe in embarrassment and feel like decent Catholic Priests after the pedophile scandal.

This is a group of individuals.

Dan Froomkin: Well put, and something to keep in mind as you read David Ignatius today on the Post op-ed page. He writes that "President Obama promised CIA officers that they won't be prosecuted for carrying out lawful orders, but the people on the firing line don't believe him. They think the memos have opened a new season of investigation and retribution."


Silver Spring, Md.: Your torturing for propaganda purposes post just seemed to collect a number of clippings from sources that seem to reinforce your viewpoint. I could put together a number of different clippings to state that this so-called torture was a good thing and very effective. For some reason, anything that you disagree with is Hannity-esque. Most people don't even care about this torture deal and the issue is far too complex for any poll to elicit any type of response outside of "I'm against torture." David Addington has been at the forefront of this for years, was publishing of a report really necessary for all of this fake outrage?

Dan Froomkin: Hey, I assure you it's not fake outrage on my part.

And no, I really don't think you could put together a number of different clippings to state that this "so-called" torture was a good thing. At least not fact-based ones. Find me fact-based journalism that supports yoru view, and that's not dependent on circular arguments fueled by self-justifying memos from inside the complicit chain of command, and believe you me I'll link to them.


Lemon Grove, Calif.: Regarding the Justice Dept. Lawyers: When asked to provide a legal framework for interrogations and establishing limits to coercion, don't you think they should have provided a historical analysis of excessive methods which we had prosecuted as war crimes? And their failure to do so should be grounds for disbarment? I'd be happy with that.

Dan Froomkin: I think that would have been very useful. And very unwelcome. See today's NYT story by Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti about what appears to be the willful ignorance of the decisionmakers.


NYC: I think if we just keep letting that Dick Cheney talk, he'll end up using all the rope we give him to hang himself. I feel like we're nearing some sort of "You Can't Handle the Truth" moment, where Cheney's so self-righteous he'll just tell some Fox News Flack "Yes, we tortured! And it was good, I tell you! Good!" Then hopefully somebody will be waiting outside the studio with cuffs.

Dan Froomkin: I encourage my readers to dream big dreams.


Washington, D.C.: What are the actual chances of the real higher-ups like Cheney and Rumsfeld being called to account here? Is it realistic to expect that, should prosecutions go ahead under Holder, former lower-level DOJ and OLC staff would give up the goods on their old bosses in exchange for lighter treatment?

Dan Froomkin: I think the chances are not insignificant. Indeed, there are increasing rumors of a special prosecutor swirling around DC these past few days.

I'm not sure how high up such a prosecution could go, however, given what we know (admittedly, from only one case) about the willingness of loyal staffers to take the fall for their bosses. But even those loyal staffers might well be pretty high up.

I absolutely believe that an aggressive criminal prosecution would flip a lot of lower-level people on the way to the big fish.


Delmar, N.Y.: If the CIA interrogators are getting a pass, what about the enlisted servicemen and women who were convicted of crimes for what they did at Abu Ghraib? Unlike the CIA agents who operated at Gitmo or various "black sites", the "guards" at Abu Ghraib were operating in a war zone, under significantly more stress. This is not meant to be a defense of what happened in Abu Ghraib, but a call for equal treatment.

It was obvious then, and more obvious now that the primary actors at Abu Ghraib were not meeting out punishment on their own but following procedures that they were instructed to by higher ups.

Dan Froomkin: I think that's a very important question and one that so far remains unaddressed.


About torture: Every time there's a new revelation, I think/hope, okay, that's it, it's not going to get any worse. And every time, I'm wrong. I'm sure 10s of millions of Americans think the same. For our sake, if nothing else, we need to have a thorough investigation and just rip the bandage off as quickly as possibly rather than prolonging the agony of us citizens realizing that our nation was a torture state. What's weird is that elements of the Republican party seem to have identified torture as a partisan issue, which is going to make it difficult to do the right thing.

Do you see any path by which the Obama administration could take the partisanship out of the torture issue?

Dan Froomkin: Yeah, this whole Iraq propaganda thing made me queasy. The ICRC report made me sick.

I think the only way this will become less partisan is if Republican leaders realize this is not the issue they want to define them, and that in fact they agree that torture is wrong and we must learn from our mistakes. But as long as the leadership remains so much more radical than the (dwindling) rank and file, I don't see that happening anytime soon.


Breaking the law, knowingly or not: I always thought ignorance was not a defense. If breaking the law was authorized (with or without a nod to legality), doesn't that still put the authorizers on the hook? I think it should. But I have known since high school (at least) that torture was against the law (Constitution).

Dan Froomkin: Your last point really resonates. I mean, come on. This is just common sense. The ace in the hole that any special prosecutor would have, it seems to me, is that no jury, at least no D.C. jury, is going to believe these guys when they say they didn't think it was torture. It's just ridiculous.


Bethesda: "Most people don't even care about this torture deal"

IF that is true -- and in my most cynical moments, I'm afraid it is -- then that is the saddest, most disturbing part of the whole thing.

Dan Froomkin: Yup.


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