President-Elect Obama's advisers feared in 2008 that authorities would oust him in a coup and that Republicans would block his policy agenda if he prosecuted Bush-era war crimes, according to a law school dean who served as one of Obama's top transition advisers.
University of California at Berkeley Law School Dean Christopher Edley, Jr., above, the sixth highest-ranking member of the 2008 post-election transition team preparing Obama's administration, revealed the team's thinking on Sept. 2 in moderating a forum on 9/11 held by his law school (also known as Boalt Hall). Edley was seeking to explain Obama's "look forward" policy on suspected Bush-era law-breaking that the president-elect announced on a TV talk show in January 2009.
But Edley's rationale implies that Obama, or at least his team, feared the military/national security forces that the president is supposed be commanding -- and that Republicans have intimidated him right from the start of his presidency even after voters in 2008 rejected Republicans by the largest combined presidential-congressional mandate in recent U.S. history.
Edley responded to my request for additional information by providing a description of the transition team's fears. Edley said that transition officials, not Obama, agreed that he faced the possibility of a "revolt."
I'm grateful, of course, that this eminent scholar took time on short notice to describe such important decision-making. But I have two blunt reactions that frame the details below:
First, this doesn't look like presidential leadership, no matter what the rationales. Voters "hired" the Obama team to lead the country, not fret about possible retaliation. No one wants to see an assassination or coup. But the kids fighting Mideast wars, like those in wars before them, have no guarantees -- or even Secret Service protection.
Our country has a long history that the President is the boss, not the military or the covert agencies. President Eisenhower stood up for this principle time and again, including in his Farewell Address in 1961 warning of the dangers of the "military-industrial complex." So did President Truman when he fired the popular General MacArthur over different strategies for the Korean War. As for Republicans, the Democratic President Johnson knew enough not to treat them any better than his friends -- whom he treated terribly many times.
Second, shouldn't such an important matter have been revealed long
ago? The mainstream news organizations, courts and Congress are supposed to be
ferreting out this kind of information.
Here, it took an anti-war activist asking the right question during Q&A at a law school forum to bring the tale to light. I suppose that's inspirational in a sense: Perhaps it's like a destitute blind person stumbling on a bag of money and finally, with the help of kind strangers, being able to afford an eye operation. But is this really the best procedure?
You be the judge.
First, we summarize below what happened. Those interested in more historical background and related controversies can find them on the longer version of this column cross-posted today on the website of the Justice Integrity Project, the non-partisan legal reform group I lead.
Longtime peace advocate Susan Harman, a Californian, elicited Edley's opinions during Q&A at the Boalt Hall forum, which was organized by the school's Miller Institute for Global Challenges and the Law. Boalt Hall's faculty includes Professor John C. Yoo, above, a former Justice Department attorney with stellar career credentials but a notorious reputation for his legal justifications for waterboarding terror suspects and similar Executive Branch abuses.