The Significance of Obama’s Decision to Release the Torture Memos
by Glenn Grennwald
17 Apr 09 | Salon
Numerous commentators are objecting to the idea that Barack Obama deserves credit for his release of the OLC torture memos yesterday in light of his accompanying pledge that CIA officials relying in good faith on those memos won’t be prosecuted. Chris Floyd is one who articulates that objection quite well and, as is always true for Chris, his criticisms are well worth reading. Many others — including Keith Olbermann, Jonathan Turley, John Dean and Bruce Fein — yesterday lambasted Obama for his anti-prosecution stance. Since I gave substantial credit to Obama yesterday for the release of the memos and believe even more so today that he deserves it (despite finding the anti-prosecution case as corrupted and morally bankrupt as ever), I want to return to the issue of Obama’s actions.
Purely as an analytical matter, releasing the OLC memos and advocating against prosecutions are two separate acts. It’s perfectly coherent to praise one and condemn the other. There is an unhealthy tendency to want to make categorical, absolute judgments about the persona of politicians generally and Obama especially (“I like him”/”I don’t like him”; “I trust him/I don’t trust him”) rather than case-by-case judgments about his specific acts. “Like” and “trust” are sentiments appropriate for one’s friends and loved ones, not political leaders. A politician who does something horrible yesterday can do something praiseworthy tomorrow. Generally bad people can do good things (even if for ignoble reasons) and generally good people can do bad things. That’s why I care little about motives, which I think, in any event, are impossible to know. Regardless of motives, good acts (releasing the torture memos) should be praised, and bad acts (arguing against prosecutions) should be condemned.
Beyond those generalities, I think the significance of Obama’s decision to release those memos — and the political courage it took — shouldn’t be minimized. There is no question that many key factions in the “intelligence community” were vehemently opposed to release of those memos. I have no doubt that reports that they waged a “war” to prevent release of these memos were absolutely true. The disgusting comments of former CIA Director Mike Hayden on MSNBC yesterday — where he made clear that he simply does not believe in the right of citizens to know what their government does and that government crimes should be kept hidden– is clearly what Obama was hearing from many powerful circles. That twisted anti-democratic mentality is the one that predominates in our political class. >>>