Last month, President-elect Barack Obama invited the public to submit questions to him via his transition website, change.gov, on a wide-range of topics. He promised to respond to some of the top queries up until his Jan. 20, inauguration. Since then, progressive activists have launched a major grassroots effort to get the public to ask Obama whether he intends to have the Department of Justice appoint a special prosecutor “to independently investigate the gravest crimes of the Bush Administration, including torture and warrantless wiretapping.”
The effort is spearheaded by Bob Fertik of Democrats.com (a website not affiliated with the Democratic party) who said more than 22,000 people have submitted the question about the appointment of a special prosecutor to Obama’s transition website. Obama has not answered the query even though it's the top question submitted on his transition website.
Fertik is also gathering 100,000 signatures for a petition demanding that Attorney General designee Eric Holder appoint a special counsel to “investigate and prosecute” government officials who may have committed war crimes.
The debate as to whether Bush administration officials have broken international and federal torture laws has played out over the past month in a series of interviews with major media in which Vice President Dick Cheney admitted that he “signed off” on requests by CIA interrogators to waterboard three alleged high-level terrorist detainees. Cheney has staunchly defended the decision and maintained that it was not illegal.
Earlier this week, in an interview with the Associated Press, Cheney said he doesn’t see any reason for President George W. Bush to issue preemptive pardons to CIA officials who carried out the interrogations because they did not do anything illegal.
“I can't -- you know, I can't speak for everybody in the administration, but my view would be that the people who carried out that program -- intelligence surveillance program, the enhanced interrogation program, with respect to al Qaeda captives -- in fact were authorized to do what they did, and we had the legal opinions that -- and in effect said what was appropriate and what wasn't,” Cheney said. “And I believe they followed those legal opinions and I don't have any reason to believe that they did anything wrong or inappropriate.”
Obama has been under intense pressure, as a result Cheney’s public statements, by numerous human rights and civil liberties organizations since he was elected president last November to aggressively probe the Bush administration’s torture and domestic surveillance policies and to prosecute officials who may have violated anti-torture and civil liberties laws. Obama has selected some outspoken critics of the Bush administration’s torture policies for positions at the Department of Justice and the CIA.
On Friday, in officially announcing retired admiral Dennis Blair as his director of national intelligence and former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta to head the Central Intelligence Agency, Obama vowed to break with past practices that took place under Bush.
"I was clear throughout this campaign, and have been clear throughout this transition that under my administration, the United States does not torture, we will abide by the Geneva conventions, that we will uphold our highest values and ideals," Obama said.
But that’s as far as Obama intends to go.
Several high-ranking members of Obama’s transition team told me this week that the president-elect will not authorize the Justice Department to initiate a criminal investigation into the Bush administration’s interrogation practices nor will the agency scrutinize any individual officials for approving such policies.
Instead, these aides, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Obama will review and possibly reverse some of Bush’s executive orders and withdraw some legal opinions that gave the president broad powers in the global war on terror. Additionally, the advisers on Obama’s transition team said the president-elect would support and encourage Congress to take its own steps to probe the White House’s controversial policy decisions, particularly decisions related to brutal interrogations.
Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights said it's simply unacceptable to allow Bush administration officials to go unpunished for their role in implementing torture policies.
“This is not Latin America; this is not South Africa. We are not trying to end a civil war, heal a wounded country and reconcile warring factions. We are a democracy trying to hold accountable officials that led our country down the road to torture. And in a democracy, it is the job of a prosecutor and not the pundits to determine whether crimes were committed," Ratner said in an article published in the magazine The Progressive.
Newspaper Warns Obama Officials
Ratner also said anything less than a full-scale criminal investigation – a substitute like a Truth Commission assigned simply to ascertain the facts – would be unacceptable.