Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Wait a minute: It’s not Obama’s decision to prosecute Bush officials who permitted torture

The media’s all over it – headlining today from the Washington Post to the NY Times to the Huffington Post (thousands of readers comments) that President Obama is suddenly open to prosecuting officials who permitted harsh interrogations (torture). Glen Greenwald at Salon, however, suggests that even though members of Obama’s staff, e.g., Rahm Emanuel, may be confused, “Obama recognizes: whether to prosecute is not his decision.”

Greenwald writes:

One of the central principles of our justice system is supposed to be that specific decisions about Justice Department prosecutions are to be made independent of all political considerations, including the White House's political agenda or the President's political interests…

This is the principle that has made it so strange, and increasingly disturbing, that the power to decide whether Bush officials should be prosecuted was being vested in Barack Obama. Whether to commence criminal investigations and prosecutions of specific acts of alleged criminality is not Obama's decision to make. It is the duty of the Justice Department, and ultimately the Attorney General, to make those decisions based strictly on legal considerations, and independent of the political interests of the White House. Whether or not Obama favors prosecutions is really irrelevant, and one could almost reasonably argue that the increasingly aggressive pressure he and his aides, such as Rahm Emanuel, have been exerting to impede prosecutions was becoming improper. Given the magnitude of these questions, I think it's unreasonable to argue that the President should refrain entirely from opining on such questions, but the line of propriety can easily be crossed and -- especially with the recent comments of Emanuel and Robert Gibbs all but decreeing that there would be no prosecutions -- that line was starting to be broached.

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