This week, the New York Times published a bombshell of an op-ed demanding that the Obama administration "prosecute torturers and their bosses," specifically Bush officials up to and including former Vice President Dick Cheney. It's probably the first time in recent history that a major newspaper has endorsed prosecuting such high-ranked American functionaries for what amounts to war crimes.
But while I'm celebrating, I'm not exactly pleased. The Times fumbled on the War on Terror for a decade.
To be clear, I'm not accusing the Times of hypocrisy. They've been consistently against torture, even the "torture lite" that so many members of the war-hawk crowd consistently insisted was totally legal and ethical. But I will accuse the Times of being far too late to this particular party. If this was New Year's Eve, the Times would be showing up at 2 a.m. with a half-empty bottle of wine while everyone else was passed out on the couch.
As late as August this year, the publication was still debating whether or not to actually use the word torture to describe the CIA's treatment of detainees. That's after a decade-plus of using terms like "harsh or brutal interrogation methods." It used the bullshit argument that it didn't know enough about the program and the courts were still debating the issue to defend its word choice.
While the Times has consistently been against torture, it's waffled considerably more on the prospect of high-level prosecutions of former Bush administration officials, especially Cheney. It's used harsh words and accused them of human rights abuses, but the genteel Times has always approached the issue of torture as a high-stakes policy debate rather than a criminal act. In 2007, the Editorial Board issued a laundry list of necessary reforms for the CIA's torture program, with criminal investigations nowhere on the list. In 2009, the paper blasted Cheney's re-emergence in the media but concluded their wishes were for him to simply "retire and stay out of the public eye - to a great extent." Later that year it inched closer to endorsing a formal congressional investigation of Bush-era torture, but stopped far short of saying charges against Cheney were needed:
That investigation should start with the lawyers who wrote these sickening memos, including John Yoo, who now teaches law in California; Steven Bradbury, who was job-hunting when we last heard; and Mr. Bybee, who holds the lifetime seat on the federal appeals court that Mr. Bush rewarded him with.
These memos make it clear that Mr. Bybee is unfit for a job that requires legal judgment and a respect for the Constitution. Congress should impeach him. And if the administration will not conduct a thorough investigation of these issues, then Congress has a constitutional duty to hold the executive branch accountable. If that means putting Donald Rumsfeld and Alberto Gonzales on the stand, even Dick Cheney, we are sure Americans can handle it.
Go back a little further, and you'll find the paper apologizing for its pro-war cheerleading in the buildup to Bush's invasion in 2004.
Flash-forward to 2014, where the Times appears to have finally found its courage in the same op-ed it angrily says "it is hard to imagine Mr. Obama having the political courage to order a new investigation." Just a few short years ago, Obama would have been in good company.
Personally, I suspect theGrey Lady was worried that calling for the criminal prosecution of high-level officials like Cheney or Rumsfeld would have seemed dangerously partisan while U.S. forces were still engaged in active combat against insurgent forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Years and years after vicious cries of anti-Americanism and cowardice effectively silenced critics of U.S. adventurism in either country, the chilling effect of being labeled an unpatriotic dissenter probably helped still the Times' tongue. There's a reason Bush isn't on the list of potential suspects and never will be.
Just like the Times rightfully insists that prosecuting Bush-era war criminals like Cheney and his corrupt band of black-hooded thugs "is not about payback," criticizing the Times for its feckless refusal to directly accuse the Bush administration of terrible, prosecutable crimes is not about being for trials before they were cool. It's actually fantastic that mainstream commentary is finally conceding just how serious Bush's crimes during the War on Terror were, instead of continuing to ignore it because it's too nasty to think about like the rabble on Fox News.
Rather, this is about remembering the terrible power of an administration waging an illegal war. It's about how it used that power to effectively intimidate the country out of a serious debate on its ramifications. The legal mumbo-jumbo and everything-is-a-state-secret doctrine Bush & Co. pushed, for example, was directly responsible for the NYT's muddling refusal to call torture torture. The venomous patriotism and faux evidence war hawks engineered to push the war infiltrated its coverage. As Media Matters documents, successfully duping the Times was a critical edge in the pro-war crowd's success. These are not merely past offenses. Iraq is still living through their consequences.
The Times' relatively accommodating stance throughout all of this is part of the reason why this fabled prosecution will never materialize. As Banter colleague Mike Luciano writes, instead the Obama administration has made itself busy "reiterating the long-standing orthodoxy the laws do not apply to the rich and powerful."
So while I'm delighted that the NYT has finally come full circle and demanded accountability from the highest levels of the Bush administration in a court of law, I'm less than impressed it took so long to find its way to the party. The next time someone decides to throw one, the paper can prove its mettle by arriving on time. Torture is torture and torture is a federal crime, even when it's politically inconvenient to say so.
For more on why the Cheney prosecution will never happen, check out Mike's piece here.