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Abuse Revelations Demand an Inquiry

A piece in the Boston Globe examines the Obama administration’s stance towards executive privilege, and the lingering presence of the previous administration.

Published: August 6, 2009

Published in the Boston Globe

Earlier this year, there were widespread calls for an independent commission to examine the Bush administration’s counterterrorism abuses. Although Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont courageously took up the cause, President Obama resisted, citing a desire to "look forward, not back,'' and for a short period it seemed he would get his wish.

But the past refuses to stay buried. What’s more, the present is beginning to carry disturbing echoes of the past, creating a powerful new argument for a commission.

The abuses underlying the original calls for a commission are well-known. The Bush administration instituted interrogation techniques widely seen as torture. It asserted the right to detain suspected terrorists indefinitely without judicial review. It implemented an illegal warrantless surveillance program. And it abused various privileges to conceal its wrongdoing from Congress, the courts, and the public.

President Obama hoped we could put all that behind us – but the revelations keep coming. The release of Bush-era Justice Department memoranda revealed additional “enhanced’' interrogation techniques. New photos of detainee abuse surfaced. A report by five inspectors general referenced still-secret ”intelligence activities’' that even some Bush officials considered illegal. And Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta revealed that Dick Cheney ordered the CIA not to inform Congress, as required by law, about its secret plans to assassinate Al Qaeda leaders.

With each revelation, it becomes clearer that the previous administration’s abuses were part of an overall breakdown in good government. The institutional safeguards designed to ensure fidelity to the rule of law – indeed, the entire system of checks and balances – failed dramatically. Unless we determine exactly what went wrong and what institutional reforms are necessary to fix the problem, the past could well become prologue.

Indeed, in some areas, that is already the case. Most notably, Obama has continued the Bush administration’s pattern of withholding important information from Congress and the courts. Even as the news broke that Cheney had told the CIA to withhold information from Congress, Obama threatened to veto legislation requiring the CIA to inform the full intelligence committees about covert operations. He issued a signing statement effectively claiming the right to ignore legislation designed to protect government whistleblowers, and his administration continues to misuse the state-secrets privilege to stop lawsuits alleging government misconduct.

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