Commentary: It's time to choose right over wrong

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 23, 2009 

While President Barack Obama was busy closing down our military prison in Guantanamo and shuttering the Central Intelligence Agency's secret Gulag around the world, Republicans on Capitol Hill were stalling a vote on Obama's choice for attorney general, apparently in hopes of negotiating a plea bargain on war crimes.

Although it violates everything we know and believe about equality under the law, the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, led astray by Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, forced a week’s delay in voting on Eric Holder's nomination to be the new attorney general in a crude attempt to get him to swear that he won’t prosecute anyone from the Bush administration for violating our laws.

The Republicans want Holder to promise that he won't attempt to bring to justice the evildoers who approved water-boarding and other harsh methods of interrogation that are barred by our laws and the international treaties that govern civilized conduct in wartime.

Never mind that the new president has signaled his unwillingness to look backward and investigate the illegal conduct of the Bush regime at a time when he wants to focus on jump-starting the economy and restarting the rusty engine of diplomacy in a dangerous world.

Never mind that the attorney general is supposed to be the nation's chief law enforcement officer and that his Justice Department is supposed to uphold the law without fear or favor.

Never mind that Holder's nomination will be overwhelmingly approved if and when it's brought to a Senate vote.

It's the attorney general's sworn duty to uphold the law and pursue criminal violations, wherever they lead. Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that the President of the United States and those around him are immune to criminal charges.

The Republicans in general and Cornyn in particular, however, want a Justice Department and an attorney general who will sign on to politics as usual, as it was defined in the time of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and their pitiful attorneys general from John Ashcroft to Michael Mukasey.

Not since the days of John Mitchell has the office of attorney general been so degraded as it was during the tenure of Alberto Gonzales, who today has a grand jury all over him investigating whether he committed crimes large and small.

The Republicans in the Senate apparently want Holder to reprise Gonzales' role of seeing, speaking and hearing no evil, even when evil is all around him.

Mr. Holder's response must be a simple, “No, I cannot and I will not do that. I will repair and restore a Justice Department that will fulfill its duty and mission of upholding the law. I cannot begin my term by promising that I won't do my duty under the law.”

And as much as President Obama may want to focus on the urgent problems he's inherited and face the future, not the past, it would be a grievous error to turn a blind eye to the criminal behavior of the last administration.

The Democratic majority in Congress should be outraged by all the quibbling, equivocating and outright lying that Bush officials did to oversight committees. It should be furious that Bush's closest aides ignored invitations and subpoenas to testify under oath. By all means, let Congress establish a 9/11-type commission to investigate the worst violations and violators.

While they're at it, they also should establish a Truman Commission to investigate war profiteering by the Halliburtons and the KBRs and the other no-bid, no-perform contractors who looted billions of dollars from our programs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But blue-ribbon commissions, whether congressional or presidential, are long on talk and short on action.

It will fall to Mr. Holder and his renovated and reinvigorated Justice Department to plumb the depths of lawbreaking by the previous administration and its leaders and followers.

Nothing less will suffice. Nothing less will convince the American people that we live in a nation where no man is above the law.

Our farsighted forebears had reason to fear and hate the capricious rule of kings and emperors, and they sought in virtually every line of our Constitution and Bill of Rights to ensure that no man was ever above the law; that no man in America could ever appropriate absolute power for himself.

We've lived through a long national nightmare — a time when those in power played on our fears to emasculate constitutional protections and individual rights in the name of security. Taking away freedom to protect freedom is akin to that Vietnam War officer who famously said: "We had to destroy the village in order to save it."

The only way we can repair all the damage they did is to confront those who led us astray, led us far from our roots and our hopes and our dreams and into a dark nether world where in order to save freedom we were willing to surrender it.

All that is necessary for evil to triumph, after all, is for good men to do nothing.

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