No, the Obama administration is losing the argument about the past being less important than the future. They would like his government, Congress and the American people to look forward, and to leave behind as much of the past as possible. The past, in this case, is the battery of crimes, cover-ups and tyrannies unleashed by their predecessors in the Bush administration.
The Obama administration's argument in favor of leaving the myriad abuses of the Bush administration to the dustbin of history is understandable, though hardly valid at this point. Obama and his team have a thousand and one problems to deal with in the here and now, and according to them, any attempt to quest into the past will derail all the work they have to do. They are also justifiably concerned that Republicans in Congress will try to burn down the Capitol building if Democrats even twitch in the direction of digging up the past.
Understandable? Sure. Valid? Not by a long chalk.
Half a dozen times since his inauguration, President Obama has seen his agenda depth-charged by a report on some nefarious activity by the previous administration. Not only have his plans and intentions been derailed by these reports - whether they be about torture, government secrecy, indefinite detention, or whatever else - he has himself become culpable for the damage done by either trying to ignore these transgressions or by adopting them himself.
It happened again this weekend. The Obama administration has been trying to gear up for a millennial debate over health care reform, but Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney have once again gotten in the way, not once but twice. "The Bush administration authorized secret surveillance activities that still have not been made public, according to a new government report that questions the legal basis for the unprecedented anti-terrorism program," reported The Associated Press on Friday. "President George W. Bush authorized other secret intelligence activities - which have yet to become public - even as he was launching the massive warrentless wiretapping program, the summary said. It describes the entire program as the 'President's Surveillance Program.' The report describes the program as unprecedented and raises questions about the legal grounding used for its creation. It also says the intelligence agencies' continued retention and use of the information collected under the program should be carefully monitored."
"The Central Intelligence Agency withheld information about a secret counterterrorism program from Congress for eight years on direct orders from former Vice President Dick Cheney, the agency's director, Leon E. Panetta, has told the Senate and House intelligence committees, two people with direct knowledge of the matter said Saturday," reported The New York Times on Sunday. "The report that Mr. Cheney was behind the decision to conceal the still-unidentified program from Congress deepened the mystery surrounding it, suggesting that the Bush administration had put a high priority on the program and its secrecy."
Thud. Nobody is talking about health care now, or Ghana or nuclear reduction deals with the Russians. Just like that, all discussion has once again turned to the actions and activities of the Bush administration. President Obama has been acting as if only two options - ignorance or adoption - are available to deal with these Bush-era eruptions, because he does not want his presidency to become overwhelmed by the third available option: investigation and prosecution.
Guess what? The Obama administration is already being overwhelmed, and will continue to lose ground every time another one of these wretched revelations hits the headlines, which they will, over and over again. There is more out there about Bush and Cheney's torture program. There is more out there about their indefinite detention program, about their broad policy of absolute secrecy, about how and why we invaded Iraq, about their domestic surveillance program - specifically, who got spied on in America and why - and even about exactly what happened before and on September 11.
Let's investigate. Let's prosecute. Let's clean out the Augean stables of the Bush administration and put things right again. It's not as if the desire to do exactly that isn't already present in the body politic. A majority of Democrats and a whole passel of Americans want to see the crimes and cover-ups of the Bush administration looked into and punished with vigor.
Some members of Congress appear poised to do just that. "House Democrats said yesterday that they expect to launch a formal investigation into a secret CIA program that was not disclosed to Congress for almost eight years, a probe that could entangle senior Bush administration officials who oversaw intelligence issues, reported The Washington Post on Sunday. "Democrats on the House intelligence committee said the inquiry would examine both the nature of the still-secret program and the decisions to keep congressional oversight committees in the dark about its existence."
And Congress, it seems, may not be alone. "(Attorney General Eric) Holder, 58, may be on the verge of asserting his independence in a profound way," reported Newsweek on Saturday. "Four knowledgeable sources tell NEWSWEEK that he is now leaning toward appointing a prosecutor to investigate the Bush administration's brutal interrogation practices, something the president has been reluctant to do. While no final decision has been made, an announcement could come in a matter of weeks, say these sources, who decline to be identified discussing a sensitive law-enforcement matter.
Let's get it over with, shall we?