Poor President Obama. He campaigned to put an end to the Bush-Cheney era. Instead, he may be about to relive it.
Attorney General Eric Holder says he has no choice but to investigate the conduct of CIA officials who interrogated so-called HVDs-high-value detainees-and has appointed John Durham as the Justice Department prosecutor. Actually, Holder does have a choice and he's taken the wrong path. The likelihood that any CIA officials will be held to account for committing crimes is remote. The reports that have been released so far do not testify to criminal conduct, or at least any that could be successfully prosecuted. The interrogators can either plead that they were overzealous, which doesn't necessarily amount to criminal actions, or they can point to orders authorizing harsh measures.
The argument, made by the New York Times editorial page, that confronting and airing any abuses that took place will serve as a warning to future presidents is also unconvincing. Again and again, American presidents have violated the Constitution during wartime. Sometimes the Supreme Court has even sanctioned those violations-witness the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. But whether it's a good idea or not has become moot. It's going to happen. But targeting the small-fry interrogators won't be the fascinating part of this investigation. The more interesting question raised by the current contretemps over opening an investigation centers on the role of Vice President Dick Cheney and his henchman David Addington.
Cheney seems to be spoiling for a fight. Acting on the premise that the best defense is a good offense, he has repeatedly bludgeoned the Obama administration over the handling of terrorist suspects. He has portrayed Obama as lily-livered and has now blasted him for politicizing intelligence. A recent missive to the Weekly Standard on Holder's investigation of the CIA makes it clear that Cheney is trying to set the terms of the debate.
But ultimately, Cheney's real target may not be Obama. The former veep is too clever not to know that the president has no interest in prosecuting members of the Bush administration. Holder, intent on showing that he's no Alberto Gonzales, is bucking Obama and going off on a crusade. But it's one that could affect Cheney's reputation, the heart of his claim to have been the leader of an anti-terror effort that was essential to preserving American national security. That's why Cheney has been targeting Obama so stridently. He gives every sign of courting a subpoena from a prosecutor so that he can once again enjoy the spotlight and make the case for the extraordinary measures he deemed, and continues to deem, necessary for battling terrorism.
It could be that Cheney reckons that a prosecutor will come after him so that the prudent thing is to lay out his case as boldly as possible. But it's also the case that Cheney simply relishes this kind of a battle. He, not Bush, is at the heart of the struggle over the legacy of the Bush administration. The more Cheney takes the battle to Obama, the more he becomes a titan for the Right.
Cheney is battling to protect Addington, John Yoo, and others who formed a kind of Praetorian Guard in the Bush administration to advance the policies of the radical Right. Writing in the current National Interest, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, in an elegant dissection of the modern conservative movement, urges less radicalism among American conservatives and a return to Burke. But as Cheney's bellicosity demonstrates, the Right is wounded and angry, and hence eager to embrace a fight against what it sees as traitorous liberals out to debauch American security.
Sound familiar? It's what conservatives alleged during the 1950s as well. But they never had their hands on the levers of power. Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford and George H. W. Bush were too canny and cautious to allow the true believers to take charge. What the documents that have been released by the Obama administration suggest, however, is a Bush administration that acted in a manner perfectly consonant with its own apocalyptic rhetoric. It wasn't engaging in subterfuges. It was swept away by its own grandiose sense of mission and contemptuous of the traditional limits on governmental power that, it believed, had hamstrung previous efforts to stymie terrorists.
Ultimately, this is the most peculiar aspect of the Bush administration and of radical conservatives. They decried big government but sought to expand its sway and reach in targeting both foreigners and American citizens.
As illuminating as these disputes over national security may be for learning about the history of the past, they probably won't do Obama much good politically. Indeed, they will probably backfire. Or they may simply peter out. But so far, one thing is perfectly clear: it isn't Obama who's politicizing intelligence. It's Cheney.
Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.