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April 21st, 2009
09:34 AM ET

Make accountability count

President Obama met with CIA workers and Director Leon Panetta, left, in Virginia on Monday.

President Obama met with CIA workers and Director Leon Panetta, left, in Virginia on Monday.

Robert Zimmerman
AC360° Contributor and CNN Political Analyst

After thoughtful deliberation, President Obama released memos from the Bush administration revealing brutal CIA interrogation tactics. These memos, authored by leading officials in the Bush Department of Justice, made every attempt to create a legal rational to engage in nothing less than torture. Despite the use of bureaucratic language to justify their intent, there is no question these memos were an exercise to excuse tactics like "stress positions" that were employed by the Nazis in World War II or water boarding used by the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh Cambodia. In fact, these memos have the temerity to actually point out that other countries that behaved in a similar fashion, like Indonesia, were engaging in torture.

While President Obama deserves great credit for releasing these memos in the face of strong opposition within his administration and with minimal deletions in the documents, he has not ended the debate. On the contrary; he has started it. The questions that need to be addressed focus on whether the release of these memos compromise our ability to combat terrorists. We also have a right to know what, if any, measures should be taken to hold those who authored these memos, as well as those who attempted their legal justification, accountable. In short, the answers to those questions reflect the core values and the guiding principles that define the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress' commitment to transparency and accountability.

Vice President Cheney and his colleagues in the Bush administration have claimed that America has been compromised in its battle against terrorists. The same cast of characters who misled us into the war in Iraq, ignored the threat of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, lied to us about our progress in the Iraq, deceived us about the cost of the war and did not properly protect our soldiers in battle or care for them when they returned are expecting to be regarded credibly in this debate.

On numerous occasions national intelligence officials in the Bush administration testified before Congress that they could not say whether the United States was creating or capturing more terrorists through the war in Iraq and our government's tactics. That seems to sum up the success of their strategies. The record and conduct of the Bush administration over the past eight years sacrifices the credibility of those individuals in this discussion. Someone should read them their Miranda rights before they comment further.

That leads to the next question: Should the individuals who devised these tactics and authorized them be held responsible? Rahm Emanuel, the White House Chief of Staff, stated that the Obama administration opposes any effort to prosecute those in the Justice Department who drafted the legal memos in question. The White House and the Democratic leadership in Congress have not even shown any interest in supporting Senator Patrick Leahy's proposal for an independent commission of inquiry, which would offer immunity in return for candid testimony. Congressman John Conyers, Senator Carl Levin and Senator Dianne Feinstein have also called for investigating aspects of these abuses.

However, we should establish the facts before making a decision about whether to prosecute. Our nation will not be paralyzed by documenting the facts and demanding accountability from individuals such as Jay S. Bybee, Steven G. Bradbury and John Yoo, the lawyers in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel who are at the center of composing these memos. Jay Bybee now has a lifetime appointment as a federal appeals court judge. If he is impeached, the republic will survive. Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and more senior Bush administration officials, including Vice President Cheney, also played a critical role in the decisions around those heinous acts and have much to answer for as well – not just to the American people, but especially to those who served in our military in the war against Al Qaeda.

The history of our nation has taught us that our strength comes from our respect for our system of justice and trust in the principles set forth in our Constitution. The need for the Democratic leadership to support a congressional investigation is not about partisanship it is about preserving the very values that distinguish our country and defines its greatness in the eyes of the world.

Editor’s Note: Robert Zimmerman has been a volunteer for the Democratic National Committee member since 2000. He is a partner at Zimmerman/Edelson Inc., a marketing, advertising and public relations firm based in New York which does not represent the DNC.

soundoff (38 Responses)
  1. mr. accountability

    Thoughtful analysis. What about the prisoners in Cuba?

    April 21, 2009 at 4:58 pm |
  2. Ginzinger

    It is nothing less than abhorrent that U.S. citizens (and that means you, Anderson Cooper, on last night's show) are debating whether or not torture implemented by the CIA – on orders given by members of the Bush administration – was "effective" and, therefore, "justified".

    It was TORTURE and it is against everything we claim to stand for, not to mention illegal. The end does not justifiy the means, folks. Where do you draw the line? If you rob a bank, but use the money to send your kid to college, does that justify grand larceny? By Cheney's rationale, it does. And doesn't that put a new spin on the rule of law...

    Wake up, America! Torture is a war crime. Period. And we should be ashamed and outraged that it was done in our names.

    April 21, 2009 at 4:55 pm |
  3. Wrong Change

    I am sorry, but some of you are suggesting that the interrogators need to be somehow penalized for their part, but that is absurd as well. I guarantee all you people suggesting this have never been in the armed forces or miltiary intelligence. Assuming all the legal opinions were fraudulant, it is still not the operative's place to question those orders. You don't want a bunch of soldiers or federal agents running around following their own instincts when they have orders to the contrary. That is not how a successful military works. You need people who understand the chain of command and when their superiors tell them to do something, short of murder, they better follow.

    April 21, 2009 at 4:31 pm |
  4. Speakingout

    I am sad to see that folks on both sides of the political fence are so determined to see only one side of a political argument-no matter what it is. Wake up! Neither Democrats or Republicans are ALWAYS right or wrong. Where are the free thinkers? When I read on the blogs, it just makes me sick!
    Bush did some things right and Obama makes some mistakes.

    April 21, 2009 at 4:23 pm |
  5. Ruth

    Why must we always be the victim? How many eyes were closed to the victims of the Holocoust? What does God say?

    "..An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth..."

    April 21, 2009 at 4:19 pm |
  6. Mike Syracuse, NY

    It has been pointed out that 2 of the terrorists were waterboarded 266 times. Seems like a lot huh? How about when you figure that they were waterboarded once for every 11 Americans lives they took on 9/11? Still seem 'excessive'? I bet not to the husbands, wives, children and friends of the dead. They probably feel the terrorists got off easy.

    @Lisa, I'm sure that tactics in WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam make these tactics tame. I've seen WWII vets admit that after interrogating Japanese prisoners, they shot them. Who said we didn't use these methods then? We just didn't have a dolt for president who admits it to the world. It's a bad world out there, and those who play by the rules die.

    April 21, 2009 at 3:53 pm |
  7. timelesstraveller

    Most extremists have a narrow mind view. Even if they think of themselves as well read, connected to the world and the events of the day unfolding in a, to them, logical way. We all see ourselves and the universe through the filters of our conditioning. How objective or subjective defines if we are, on the one hand, reasonably balanced or on the other, radicalized.

    Lets consider a very different method of getting the information we needs, this is by expanding the awareness of a subject. Take them past the pictures that they see. Take them out of the corner that they are in. Most extremists are emotionally isolated from themselves and others, they are confined to a little world. What does all what they stand for in a world of millions of years of planetary existence? They feel that they have something to teach us and they are going to teach us using violent methods, ask them what do you want to teach us? This changes the action and brings it back to the table of original concept. With skilled, really savvy interrogators, the power of suggestion and the latest hypnotic technics, where the subject is not even aware that they are in an altered state, much can be achieved. If we can take a person from the street and in 8 weeks of military training turn them into a killing machine we can do far more with the people that are bent on our distruction. People that have been conditioned can be re-conditioned. Timelesstraveller

    April 21, 2009 at 3:03 pm |
  8. penny

    "Looking back means looking at a president who rode the SHORT BUS for 8 YEARS. You do have to reap what you sow. Now Republicans are worried about leaving their children in debt. The Republicans are known for cheap fiscal spending. They went cheap and voted for the SHORT BUS version eight years. Look what Happen!! They say teach someone how to fish and he will eat for days. Educate the children to learn innovative ways to survive during this down time instead of degrading the PRESIDENT. With all due respect the ones who are talking couldnot do any better."
    "There were no thought processes or Rule of Law that Bush prepared, for the tactics for interrogation. He only used his gun toting swagga and Cheney that continues to shroud his administration even today. Obama probably knows not to look down on A president who rode thw SHORT BUS. It's the humane thing to do and try to move forward"

    April 21, 2009 at 2:55 pm |
  9. timelesstraveller

    It seems in a world where everybody is in everybody's business that if you have any dirty laundry you better show it yourself because someone will and it may not be someone you like. How's to know that through secret channels, not know to the average, that a someone(country = the nasties or even a semi-friendly could bring all this to light) Maybe take it to the international court and declare it crimes against humanity. I feel in the world we live in that it is very dangerous to under estimate the chess game that is being played by the powers that are, and The President is actually, cushioning the blow. We are not saying that this is what is happening but in the world that I live in, I look beyond the surface. In a way, I hope I am wrong because this only means there is more of this Global Political Karate ahead. Timelesstraveller

    April 21, 2009 at 2:39 pm |
  10. Russell

    It's an easy thing to point out the errors of others; however, it's qyute difficult to take action towards correcting those errors. The US can't afford to not do the right thing simply because it's difficult any longer.

    Excellent work, Robert!

    April 21, 2009 at 2:33 pm |
  11. Larry

    I'm surprised that the show '24' is still being aired; it is rampant with torture. No wonder every country in the world hates us as they take that show to represent how evil we americans are.

    April 21, 2009 at 2:23 pm |
  12. Lisa in CA

    How is it we remained safe between 12/7/41 and 9/11/01 without the use of these tactics?

    Maybe if the GOP hadn't been so hell-bent on bringing the Clintons down, they would have taken more seriously – and authorized action against – the threats coming in. But why take responsibility for failure to act when one can divert attention to the opposition for releasing "classified" information and – gasp – once again raising the "fear" rhetoric.

    April 21, 2009 at 2:17 pm |
  13. Jerry

    What would you do to someone who was terrorizing your loved ones (son, daughter, wife) who you were sworn to protect and defend when they couldn't directly defend themselves? What if you believed that through these methods you could find your kidnapped child before they died? Tough debate here, I think...

    April 21, 2009 at 1:21 pm |
  14. Diane N.

    Wouldn't declassifying any security documents past or present constitute treason??

    April 21, 2009 at 1:02 pm |
  15. Tom Fochs

    The President's comments that those who carried out torture of U.S. detainees in Cuba should be shielded from criminal prosecution because they were following legal opinions from the Justice Department ignores the concept, and the fact, that soldiers in our military are subject to prosecution for crimes that occur on the battlefield, e.g., murder of innocent non-combatants, even when following direct orders from a superior. There is no "shield" or "do-over" for soldiers who may be under fire on a battlefield. The President's opinion is directed toward people [CIA personnel] who had the luxury of carrying out torture in a setting where they were completely in control of those being tortured without any danger or fear for their own safety. Where is the same shield from prosecution for soldiers who put their life on the line every day? There is not, and should not be a shield for anyone, soldier or CIA agent, who commits a war crime or tortures under the guise of "I was just following orders."

    April 21, 2009 at 12:51 pm |
  16. Heather,ca

    What your suggesting being done is Ex Post Facto! Unconstitutional!

    April 21, 2009 at 12:49 pm |
  17. James R.

    It really bothers me that Cheney continues to speak out on all this. I wouldn't be surprise if it is one of the reasons that they are now considering possibly going after the leaders involve in these sought of interrogations. So if indictments are eventually passed out, everyone can look at Cheney and say: you should have kept your mouth shut and stay in retirement where we all feel you belong. I am a Republican that just wonders why Cheney can not keep his ego in check and stay retired. By the way, I feel that the President should not go after anyone involve in this. I agree with his initial statement about lets look forward into the future not the past. Overall, I have been pretty impressed with the President.

    April 21, 2009 at 12:47 pm |
  18. James

    Terrific think piece Robert.

    I believe your last sentence is a key takeaway point here: "...it is about preserving the very values that distinguish our country and defines its greatness in the eyes of the world." That "greatness in the eyes of the world" was seriously dimished over the past eight years, but President Obama's recent travels have shown us that we really do have an opportunity to repair and restore our reputation and international standing.

    You are 100% correct that what we need now are facts and that this really should begin the debate, not end it.

    April 21, 2009 at 12:33 pm |
  19. Republocrat

    The fact that only a handful of documents shows that the Administration is not willing to give full disclosure on the matter. If we are to hold those responsible for the acts, then Justice should know no "Party Lines". Do we stick to our morals, and maintain that the ends never justify the means, or do we keep putting ourselves above humanity? Do we hold the Democrats accountable for not bringing charges against an administration that implimented it?

    Do we demand full disclosure, or do we allow our Government to allow "Selective disclosure" because it suits it's best political interests at the moment?

    April 21, 2009 at 12:19 pm |
  20. Rosemarie

    Robert, As usual your insights are always interesting and concise!

    April 21, 2009 at 12:12 pm |
  21. Sherman Says...

    Zimmerman is a free thinking Democrat who speaks his mind not the party line.

    April 21, 2009 at 12:09 pm |
  22. Richmond Pam

    I understand the Obama administration's desire to move forward and their view that people were just doing their job. That might be true for those in the CIA, Army, Navy, Marines etc.; but what about the lawyers at the Justice Department who wrote all these memos backing up the Bush/Republican point of view? What about Cheney who was the mastermind of the Bush administration....shouldn't he be made to testify and acknowledge his role in this mess. Even if Cheney was given immunity it would acknowledge wrong doing, which is now sort of up in the air....It was wrong, but nobody is at fault.

    April 21, 2009 at 12:07 pm |
  23. fran frank

    I am on the fence with this issue. On one hand I think the entire situation should be investigated from every angle – congressional hearings, indictments etc. etc. On the other hand we are in such turmoil on so many levels that perhaps letting it go and moving forward will be better for the country. One thing is for sure – the Republicans would never look the other way on something that could end with jail, impeachment of judges and disbarments of anyone associated with a previous Democratic administration.

    April 21, 2009 at 11:54 am |
  24. Terry, TX

    Torturing terrorists please… and I laugh at the word torture….my three boys caused more ruckus pretending to be wrestlers and they didn't have a doctor standing by. While these Muslim Islamic Terrorist cut . American throats on the internet….beheadings…strapping bombs on children to blow them up in mosques, mosques, restaurants, the rocket fire in Israel, elected officials…let’s not forget our 3,000 that were murdered.

    I read the memos Obama deliberately released. He didn’t even appeal the request from the ACLU..might as well just give them an office in the white house. This is Rahm Emanuel causing a distraction so American Taxpayers take their eyes off what they have done to the economy with their Pork Bills and Bailouts. Who is Zimmerman to think he opinion is worth the typing he's done?

    April 21, 2009 at 11:52 am |
  25. Joe G. (Illinois)

    Obama may be critical and detrimental all he wants about the Bush/Cheney Administration.. He may parade is Red, White and Blue wand all over the world.. He may use derogatory and “Put me downs” remarks all he wants.. But fact is that he still can’t do math like the Chinese Wiz Kids, nor can he come up with a flight plan all of his own.. The Guantanamo outrageous, ridicules stencil town bail wire plan of his about the 9/11 terrorist has got no leg to stand on.. or any speck of reasonable outcome.

    April 21, 2009 at 11:48 am |
  26. Mike M.

    If you can answer my last post with I would be nice to the terrorist and respect the laws of the Geneva convention then please go live in Iraq or Iran or any other middle east country. I for one want to surround myself with Americans who want to protect Americans at any cost.

    April 21, 2009 at 11:48 am |
  27. earle,florida

    Accountability is in the wastebasket; the splintered broom now chafing the caretaker hands are soiled; thisles,and straw are strewed about the worn rug; the sweeping capitulation has levitated the torn,and tethered carpets underbelly regurgitating it's repugnance; this requiem of deception yearns for it's masters redemption,...? I find it hard to condone such behavior as passive ubiguious unconsequential actions without strong prosecutorial action. To sweep incidents such as this under the rug are very dangerous to each,and everyone's constitutional rights!

    April 21, 2009 at 11:48 am |
  28. Mike M.

    Joanne hit the nail on the head. There are many that are quick to point out how inhumane it is. While I generally agree with that fact I am not naive to the "terrorist" motives either.

    If we asked them to tell us when your mother, father, daughter, son, or husband was to be at risk of a terrorist strike and they politely said no should we stop trying all means to get that information.

    Ask yourself this. If you had the chance to stop another 9/11 like event where your husband/wife/child was going to be killed and all you had to do to prevent it was to get a "terrorist" to talk what methods would you use?

    Choose your spouse and children or choose to let them die. I for one would do unimaginable things to this person to prevent it.

    April 21, 2009 at 11:45 am |
  29. Vegas

    Whether he prosecutes or not, I'm still with President Obama. Not every decision is going to be easy. We need a strong dose of reality. We don't know everything that is being said and done behind the scenes. If you were the President of the United States, do you want the CIA angry with you? You might say that from the comfort of your computer desk at home in your fuzzy slippers, but he's out there. I understand. And besides, we don't really know where this thing is going. Someone might still be prosecuted. They're still investigating. Give things time, give it a chance. I know we live in a microwave, just put it on the credit card because I've got to have it NOW society, but we must reintroduce patience into our lives. Let him do his job as he knows the details. We don't. All we know is what the media tells us. I don't agree with President Obama on everything, I don't agree with lots of people on everything. Relax, he's got it!

    April 21, 2009 at 11:45 am |
  30. Wrong Change

    What is wrong with you people? We are talking about punk kids that got picked up for petty theft? These guys are TERRORISTS, who would put another plane in the world trade center if they could have. Do you think we can intimidate these people or re-educate them that their views on Islam are wrong, in order to extract intelligence? These are the same people who wouldn't think twice about performing the techniques we use on them, and would more than likely decapitate you live on Al Jahzeera. Whether Obama agrees with these practices or not, he should never have made all this information public. We are talking about our nation's security and we just defined the upper-limits to the lengths we will go to in our intelligence gathering. We have hamstrung our armed forces and intelligence operatives, and most people seem to think that is a good thing. The CIA needs to keep secrets to protect the greater good. I consider myself an Independent, but I am leaning more and more to the right. What have we accomplished by releasing all this information other than to better inform the world on our intelligence gathering practices. Would Obama rather have the CIA sit down and communicate with "soft power" to these guys and explain to them our perspective of the world, and then "hope" that they come to the realization that they are the "bad guy", not us? It's crazy. When we train our own operatives we use waterboarding, but all of a sudden it is considered inhumane to do it to a TERRORIST? I am sure it isn't pleasant, but it does not cause permanant damage. The "kill them with kindness" approach will not work with these people. God help us all.

    April 21, 2009 at 11:34 am |
  31. Chris

    I think that Robert brings up some great points and makes a convincing case.

    April 21, 2009 at 11:30 am |
  32. Edward B (Woody) Ryder IV

    Bob Zimmerman remains what he has always been from my earliest days of having 1st met him back in the early 1980s here on Long Island; a dedicated Democrat, an erudite writer and prolific speaker, but above all.....a devout American first.

    April 21, 2009 at 11:12 am |
  33. RIch Pretty Girl

    I think what they did was wrong and inhumane and it goes against what American democracy and justice is all about. It especially contradicts ourselves in this war. Fighting terrorists with terror is not cool. Not to mention a majority of the detainees were not terrorists at all. So we are fighting a country then with terror. Also, I wonder the kind of impact on our own soldiers who were required to administer the torture. What kind of people are they now. How do they feel about themselves when they wake up. I know they are doing their duty for their country which is admiral but are they now a better person for it. I bet it changed their perspective on humanity forever. If I tortured people what would I feel like about myself??
    Should we prosecute those that approved.... were they breaking the law? I mean they were doing things with in political boundaries. So we should re look at how they were able to get away with it and make their own laws during war time and change those rules. Add some laws or whatever about torture so this doesn't happen again. It will happen again!!!!!!

    April 21, 2009 at 11:08 am |
  34. Melissa

    This is one of the only things I vehemently oppose Obama on. People need to be prosecuted for this. And not the people that actually carried out the acts, who were only following orders (though how they can live with themselves is beyond me. They probably need psychiatric help), the people who made the orders in the first place.

    And the people that made the orders go by the names of Bush and Cheney, as well as a few less high profile ones.

    April 21, 2009 at 10:58 am |
  35. Joey

    The question is, Does the means justify the ends?
    America simply freaked out & panicked after 9/11. The name of the game was anything goes to get back at those terrorist.
    at this point there is no reason to go after spilled milk. The mistakes have been done. Now is the time to make sure that unlawfull things do not happen again.
    terrorisim has not been addressed but has instead been used to justify arrogance. It's no surprise to see that terrorissin is still very much alive.
    In reality the terrorist where able to fool the Americans to do their worst & regret it. america is not any different from the terrorist becaus of the means they used.
    America too has dirty hands. It does not matter that because of those interogation techinques america was then relativly safe, safe, but at what cost.
    instead of America running after those who should be accountable.
    I think Americans should look inwardly & try to figure out what is it they are doing that makes terrorisim more alive.
    Enough of the excuses of defending the American way or so called American dream.
    Because the american way through it's policies have been unfair to others.
    Because the American dream has only screwed up the world economy because every American had to have a house & leave beyound it's means.
    America should wake up to realities.

    April 21, 2009 at 10:58 am |
  36. lila

    This is a thoughtful and tough analysis – great job Robert..

    April 21, 2009 at 10:47 am |
  37. Dawn

    The last paragraph says it all. Those responsible must be held accountalbe for their actions. The public should and has a right to know. Otherwise, it will continue to happen it's only a matter of time.

    April 21, 2009 at 10:35 am |
  38. Joanne Pacicca, Solvay

    Not so fast, I am very unsure as to the "de-classification" of these films and documents. Is nothing held in secret by the CIA. I do not like Cheney; however, he did point out that the released material does not show the outcomes that were positive...the outcomes that saved American lives!

    April 21, 2009 at 10:18 am |