Rafi Eitan, an Israeli elder statesman and former intelligence officer is perhaps best known for having led the Mossad operation that captured Adolf Eichmann, architect of the Holocaust, and brought him back to face trial and execution in Israel in 1962.
In an interview with Haaretz this week, Eitan summed up the Zeitgeist in which we live — the Israelification of the Western world which unfolded after 9/11:
… when there is a war on terror you conduct it without principles. You simply fight it.
President Bush, with his Manichaean view of the world, wanted to paint his war on terror in quasi-moral terms. President Obama has distilled it to its unprincipled essence.
The arc that has led from twisted morality to a rarefied amorality reached its completion point this week when the Obama administration made its determination that the authors of the former administration’s torture policies had done no more than make an error of judgment.
The chief author of the Bush administration’s “torture memo” told Justice Department investigators that the president’s war-making authority was so broad that he had the constitutional power to order a village to be “massacred,” according to a report by released Friday night by the Office of Professional Responsibility.
The views of former Justice lawyer John Yoo were deemed to be so extreme and out of step with legal precedents that they prompted the Justice Department’s internal watchdog office to conclude last year that he committed “intentional professional misconduct” when he advised the CIA it could proceed with waterboarding and other aggressive interrogation techniques against Al Qaeda suspects.
The report by OPR concludes that Yoo, now a Berkeley law professor, and his boss at the time, Jay Bybee, now a federal judge, should be referred to their state bar associations for possible disciplinary proceedings. But, as first reported by NEWSWEEK, another senior department lawyer, David Margolis, reviewed the report and last month overruled its findings on the grounds that there was no clear and “unambiguous” standard by which OPR was judging the lawyers. Instead, Margolis, who was the final decision-maker in the inquiry, found that they were guilty of only “poor judgment.”
The report, more than four years in the making, is filled with new details into how a small group of lawyers at the Justice Department, the CIA, and the White House crafted the legal arguments that gave the green light to some of the most controversial tactics in the Bush administration’s war on terror. They also describe how Bush administration officials were so worried about the prospect that CIA officers might be criminally prosecuted for torture that one senior official—Attorney General John Ashcroft—even suggested that President Bush issue “advance pardons” for those engaging in waterboarding, a proposal that he was quickly told was not possible.
At the core of the legal arguments were the views of Yoo, strongly backed by David Addington, Vice President Dick Cheney’s legal counsel, that the president’s wartime powers were essentially unlimited and included the authority to override laws passed by Congress, such as a statute banning the use of torture. Pressed on his views in an interview with OPR investigators, Yoo was asked:
“What about ordering a village of resistants to be massacred? … Is that a power that the president could legally—”
“Yeah,” Yoo replied, according to a partial transcript included in the report. “Although, let me say this: So, certainly, that would fall within the commander-in-chief’s power over tactical decisions.”
“To order a village of civilians to be [exterminated]?” the OPR investigator asked again.
“Sure,” said Yoo.
Yoo is depicted as the driving force behind an Aug. 1, 2002, Justice Department memo that narrowly defined torture and then added sections concluding that, in the end, it essentially didn’t matter what the fine print of the congressionally passed law said: The president’s authority superseded the law and CIA officers who might later be accused of torture could also argue that were acting in “self defense” in order to save American lives.
Where does Obama stand?
“I’m a strong believer that it’s important to look forward and not backwards, and to remind ourselves that we do have very real security threats out there.”
Terrorism — even if this administration thinks the term is passé — remains the only reality. Obama’s cynical mastery rests in his ability to sustain the terror zeitgeist without using the word.
Principles? They’re a distraction — a preoccupation and an indulgence for those of us little folks who do not daily wrestle with the moral ambiguity of governance.