The Road Not Taken

February 4, 2010

More disappointing news emerged on Monday for those who believe that US law and professional ethics should actually mean something.

The long awaited Justice Department Office of Professional Responsibility report into the quality and probity of the work produced on coercive interrogation by John Yoo and Jay Bybee while working in the Office of General Counsel has reportedly undergone internal revisions neutering its findings.

David Margolis, a career civil servant who served in the Justice Department throughout the Bush administration, has reportedly downgraded criticism that Yoo and Bybee violated their professional obligations concluding rather that they merely exercised poor judgment.

This is no semantic distinction – it means the difference between potential disciplinary action before state bar associations, and in Bybee’s case potential impeachment as federal judge, and little more than a minor flurry of professional embarrassment.

Once again, we see key players in one of the darker chapters in America’s recent history squirm their way out of trouble scot-free, not a stain in their character. What a contrast to a spectacle unfolding across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom.

On January 29th the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was summoned to appear before the Chilcot commission established to investigate Britain’s decision to participate in the invasion of Iraq.

Blair spent a whole day being cross-examined by a blue ribbon panel of independent experts about his decision to take the country to war.

The committee conducting this inquiry consists of two of Britain’s most prominent academics, Churchill biographer Sir Martin Gilbert and military historian Sir Lawrence Freedman, two former career civil servants, Sir John Chilcot and former Ambassador to Russia Sir Roderic Lyne, and Baroness Prashar, a prominent humanitarian.

Senior members of the Blair government like Jack Straw (Foreign Secretary) and Lord Goldsmith (Attorney-General) have already testified and the current Prime Minister Gordon Brown is expected to do so soon. This despite the fact that it is a general election year in Britain and Gordon Brown is fighting for his political life.

Other witnesses include the former Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, the Chief of the Defence Staff and Britain’s former Ambassador to the United Nations, as well as a supporting cast of military officers, civil servants and political advisers.

No major political voice has been raised in Britain claiming that the atmosphere is too partisan for such an inquiry to proceed, nor that the state of the union is too fragile to withstand the robust examination of recent political decisions.

The Iraq Inquiry has its flaws but it is has proved a riveting spectacle. A parade of powerful men and women forced to account for their actions in public – democracy in action.

We had a moment like that in America when the 9/11 Commission came together to investigate the missteps that led up to the devastating attacks of September 2001. There have been many missteps since that have gone without such scrutiny.

The watered down OPR report cannot be allowed to become the benchmark for accountability in this republic. We need a blue ribbon inquiry of our own to get to the bottom of how America turned its back on some of its most cherished values and became instead a nation that embraces torture.