Here we go again. Democrats, led by Senators Dianne Feinstein (who voted for the Iraq war in October 2002) and Richard J. Durbin (who didn't), are pushing for an inquiry into the Bush era and the intelligence services. Allegations relayed in the Wall Street Journal of a secret assassination squad to bump off al-Qaeda leaders that may have reported directly to former-Vice President Dick Cheney have Democrats in an uproar. But before they press President Obama to endorse a sweeping investigation into the past, they should think again.
Memories of the Senate committee led by Frank Church in the early 1970s have apparently impressed themselves as deeply upon Democrats as upon Republicans. For Cheney and his henchman David S. Addington, those original congressional attempts to curb intelligence abuses served as a spur to act abusively by massively expanding the writ of the federal government to carry out snooping activities that clearly violated the intent, if not the letter, of previous reforms. There is undoubtedly a lot of very, very bad stuff that didn't just happen during the Bush administration, but was presided over by it. But to pore too closely over the past holds a number of perils for Obama's future. It would be both a calamitous political and strategic mistake for the president to assent to sweeping inquiries.
One problem is that Obama, as he is well-aware, would be setting himself up for being denounced as having gutted the intelligence agencies should another terrorist attack occur on American soil. Senator John McCain has it right when he says that probing into these abuses would simply further damage "our image throughout the world." Of course, the counterargument will be that only by cleansing itself can America plausibly refurbish its image in the first place. But inquiries have a way of taking on their own life. Remember how Colonel Oliver North cleverly exploited his hearings? There's no reason to run the risk of turning Addington & Co. into martyrs. The historical verdict on the Bush administration is damning enough. For Congress to pile on would simply boomerang.
And speaking of Congress, who was in charge of oversight of all those intelligence programs during the Bush era? Sure, Democrats will argue that the administration withheld vital information from them. But it's also the case that Congress abysmally failed to exercise much oversight. Its behavior amounted to a dereliction of duty, particularly during the run-up to the Iraq war. So if any investigating is to be done, it should include Congress as well-the legislators who were too lazy or inept or cowed to scrutinize Bush-administration policies.
The more responsible thing is to adopt the tack that Obama has adopted until now, namely, to reassure the intelligence agencies that the White House stands behind them and, at the same time, seeks to ensure there is no repetition of the abuses that took place under Bush. For all the hue and cry about reform, the blunt fact remains that it's more important who the commander-in-chief is during war. There's always wiggle room, particularly in wartime, to expand the powers of government, which is what presidents ranging from Abraham Lincoln to Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush have done. The most important signal Obama could send is that he isn't trying to aggrandize the powers of the presidency, but the opposite.
All along Obama has wisely sought to avoid delving too much into the Bush era, but the fervor of legislators to cleanse themselves by targeting Bush administration officials may be overpowering. And Attorney General Eric Holder is reportedly contemplating the appointment of a prosecutor to investigate torture allegations. If there is one individual who can be consoled by these developments, however, it is Cheney himself, whose specter still hovers balefully over the nation's capital. Give credit to Cheney. His importance can only be magnified if the Congress decides to target him and his coterie of aides who oversaw the use and abuse of intelligence. And Cheney would welcome the fight over national security.
Obama doesn't. Which is why Congress should back off. Instead of huffing and puffing about the iniquities of the Bush era, legislators should focus on improving intelligence and the course of the war in Afghanistan. But that, of course, wouldn't provide as many juicy sound bites as pillorying former officials for their sins and misdeeds.
Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.