Chuck Todd: Murder OK, Investigations Too Politically Disruptive
Salon has a full transcript. I'm just gonna hit the highlights here (hat tip to Athenae at First Draft, who is dead solid perfect in her reaction to Todd's half-coherent special pleading that if you have a trial, the Democrats will be perceived as "mean" and the world will end in all 32 wingnut flavors, again.) [ why does a TV News department need a political director?]
Chuck Todd looks to me to be covering for torturers in advance, and through the use of misdirection, in a way that I find purely despicable. Is Chuck Todd really saying murders -- more than 100 murders of POWs -- shouldn't be investigated because it'd cause a row in political circles?
Glenn Greenwald: My guest today on Salon Radio is NBC News political director Chuck Todd, who participated in a discussion on the MSNBC show Morning Joe earlier this week regarding potential torture investigations and prosecutions by the Obama Justice Department.
So far, so good. We get the who, (NBC's Chuck Todd) the what, (potential torture investigations) and the when (recapping a discussion from MSNBC earlier) to back up the discussion about to open. Props to Greenwald for getting three of the W's in his lede. He then asks a good, if possibly overcomplicated, question:
I want to begin by asking you this: discussions of torture prosecutions in the media typically focus on waterboarding, and that was true of the television segment that I just mentioned. The reality, though, is that there have been at least 100 detainees who have died in US custody, many that died during or as a result of interrogations, and many of those are deaths that the US government itself classifies as homicides.There have been a lot of other cases where detainees didn't die but were brutalized severely during interrogation. Eric Holder said that reading the reports of what happened there, quote "sickens" him.
Do you think that investigations by the Justice Department to determine if there were crimes committed, violations of our laws -- either by individuals interrogators or high-level policy makers in the Bush administration -- is nothing but a petty, unimportant distraction from what really matters?
Greenwald goes right by the waterboarding -- there have after all been non-prisoners who underwent a version of it, as well as SERE school alumni who have talked and written about it, and it is obviously torture. He wants to know whether politics ought to outweigh murder in importance. It's a simple question: do you let powerful people get away with ordering murder?
Immediately, Chuck Todd starts to dissemble, lose coherency, ramble, obfuscate, and in general not give an answer. "Let me clarify," "the thinking behind the political thinking on this -- which is that, politically, these things can turn into a distraction." "this is where I took some issue with it, and maybe I was inartful --"
and then he completely changes the subject into the future role of the CIA. You never get an answer to the question -- he even says that his 20 years of watching the special prosecutor process leads him to this conclusion.
If this guy was at the White House Press Office podium (especially if he were there as a GOP Press Secretary), that'd be one thing (and I'd've expected this level of non-answer). But this guy's supposed to be a reporter, for catsakes!!!
CT: Well, let me first of all clarify for how you described the discussion on Morning Joe. I was asked a specific question about where the White House stood on this. And where the White House stands on this is my reporting. And that is what the conversation was based on. And then I was asked: why would they, what is their thinking behind this, and I was describing their thinking, and the thinking behind the political thinking on this -- which is, that politically, these things can turn into a distraction.
That doesn't mean that this stuff shouldn't be investigated, that doesn't mean whether I believe whether these things should be investigated. But as far as the discussion you're quoting - and this is where I took some issue with it, and maybe I was inartful - I wasn't trying to downplay the morality of this, okay? What I was trying to talk about, and what the question was formed to me and what I was trying to answer it, was: why is the Obama administration so hesitant.
GG: Okay, but that isn't actually --
CT: Let me just finish the point.
GG: Go ahead.
CT: And that is what I was trying to explain. I think if you kept going in the transcript, there was another part of it where I said, look, there is going to be a greater discussion, whether it's an investigation or an examination, over the future role of where the CIA sits, how this stuff should be carried out in the future, and this seems to be what this policy review is, going on between Eric Holder and between what the president ordered with his executive order on this.
Now, are you saying, should there be an investigation? There's an argument to be made, and in my observation, special prosecutors have become political footballs. But when you do these investigations through the normal means of how investigations should work in government, they're less likely to become political footballs. So that is, look, in my experience of watching the special prosecutor situation go on over the last 20 years, that I've been covering politics, that's my observation.
Doesn't explain what that normal process is. Doesn't mention things like the impeachment against Bill Clinton the GOP used to hamstring the country a decade ago. Just blithely passes over that.
Greenwald bravely tries to get back to the question: do you not investigate because they're politicians? But Todd is bound and determined to make such investigations always be about politics, never about whether or not there's been a crime.
GG: But when government officials are accused of violating the law, of committing crimes -- typically if American citizens face accusations like that, what happens is prosecutors investigate the accusations, and if they determine that there's evidence that suggests crimes were committed, they're indicted and then prosecuted.
Do you think that government officials, when they're accused of committing crimes and there's evidence to suggest that they've done so, ought to be treated differently?
CT: Nobody's suggesting they should be treated differently.
GG: I thought--
CT: Hang on. A special prosecutor, by appointing a special prosecutor, you actually are automatically then treating government officials differently.
Greenwald pushes back against this by pointing out that the US Special Prosecutor statute has expired and that particular position isn't available. So why not use a regular prosecutor from DOJ, like Patrick Fitzgerald in the Valerie Plame case? But Todd can't let that go either.
GG: The report from Newsweek was that Eric Holder was considering having a standard Justice Department prosecutor, like they did when having Patrick Fitzgerald investigate the Valerie Plame matter - one of the investigators the prosecutors mentioned was John Durham, who's currently investigating whether crimes were committed by the CIA in destroying videotapes - that would be a standard prosecutor who would investigate whether or not crimes were committed, and then have an indictment if one is warranted.
There's no more special prosecutor statute that exists in the United States; we're just talking about having a standard prosecutor investigate to determine if crimes were committed. Why isn't that perfectly appropriate when accusations of this kind are made?
CT: Nobody is saying it's not appropriate legally, but there is a political side. You can't sit here and take away the political conversation and pretend it doesn't exist in this, and pretend that it isn't a part of this. And then other question, what I've never understood on this--
GG: Well, what is that conversation, what is that political conversation that you're...
CT: The political conversation is whether...
GG: Do you think political considerations should be...
CT: Hang on, hang on.
GG: Go ahead.
CT: The political conversation is this: What message does that send if we have this political trial, and how do you know this won't turn into a political trial? In fact, we know it's going to turn into a political trial. I'll take that back - we don't know whether it's going to turn into a political trial. That is the experience of how these things have worked in the past, that end up getting turned into a political trial. And then....
GG: What do you mean by that? What is a political trial?
I don't know either, Glenn, but my guess would be any trial with a Republican standing accused. Was the Valerie Plame case a legal issue or a political issue? Or was it both: political because of the positions of the people who committed criminal acts? I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby certainly was a political figure, but was that because of his position in the government? Or did he get the opportunity to commit a crime because of his political appointment?
What Chuck Todd is doing here is covering for the torturers in advance, and through the use of misdirection, in a way that I find purely despicable. If Chuck Todd really is this ignorant of how the laws of the US work, and what the Constitution says the government is mandated to do, and what the appropriate response to torture of POWs, murder of POWs already determined by the government itself to be murder, homicide, in at least 100 cases, if murder does not matter to Chuck Todd because of who's accused, what hope have we of justice, let alone honest reportage?
GG: What do you mean by that? What is a political trial?
CT: Let's take this a step further. I want to ask you - I do respect your legal mind on this - what happens when there is a - 'cause one of the reasonings that I hear about going through with these prosecutions is that you need to send a message to the world, and to the future administrations, that this is not the way that the American government should conduct itself.
If you have this trial, and there is, inevitably, some appeals and some, where we have a back-and-forth, where there is some sort of, where it becomes a legal debate about whether so-and-so can go on trial, or not go on trial, what was allowed - they were, they thought that they were following the law, that they, you know, what message does that end up sending? Does that end up harming us down the road? Do you worry about that, if it's not a clean cut as it feels to you right now?
You know what, Chuck? Nothing about this feels clean to me now. Murder's not clean. Letting politics get in the way of justice isn't clean. Investigate, indict, prosecute; convict. Punish. Appeals are part of the process too, Chuck -- but when the law gets "interpreted" to okay torturing POWs and murdering them, then I want that interpreter investigated too. Collecting a six-figure salary as a tenured prof in SoCal isn't my idea of a proper reward for John Yoo. Collecting a hundred grand from a Texas university for recruitment and teaching one poli-sci class one semester isn't my idea of a proper reward for Alberto Gonzales.
Greenwald gets it right:
GG: I don't know what you mean. Here's what I think about this: here's how our system of government is supposed to work. We have laws that are enacted by the United States Congress, by the American people through their Congress, that say that if you do certain things -- if you do X, Y, and Z -- those are crimes. We have laws in place that say that anyone who engages in torture, or who authorizes torture, is committing a felony.
If people do that, and the prosecutor concludes that there's evidence to suggest that they've done it, there's one of two things to do. You either apply the rule of law to those government officials, the way that American citizens have the law applied to them when they commit crimes, or you announce a policy, the way that I think you were suggesting on this show -- and I think the transcript's pretty clear that you weren't only talking about what the Obama White House thinks, but you were describing this as being your view; that's certainly how both Mika Brzezinski and Pat Buchanan understood what you were saying --
But leave that aside. The other alternative is to say that when government officials break the law, because we're afraid of political controversy, or disharmony, we're not going to apply the rule of law to them. And what I don't understand is, if that's the route that you take, why would future presidents ever feel compelled to obey the law if they know that there's going to be this great media voice saying that it's too political, too controversial to prosecute them? Why would any political official ever abide by the law?
They wouldn't. Witness what W and Cheney did, or Reagan and Oliver North before them, or Nixon and the Watergate Burglars back in the dark ages. With those precedents and a real policy, spoken or unspoken, that a President really is above the law (and for this, damn Gerald Ford!!) ... what point is there in having laws? Presidents, like kings, can do whatever they want because of who they are: the President. Whether what they want is a good thing -- say, to put teeth in the voting rights laws and school integration -- or a bad thing: to start a war halfway around the world for a lie -- if you once give that power, tacitly, overtly, or out of fear of political distraction, to a human being, clawback will be a stone cold bitch on little pink wheels. Put it another way, Chuck.
If you create a banana republic and the people vote your sorry party out, and then the incoming administration doesn't look at what you did, doesn't call you up to answer to the rule of law, what does that say to the world about you as a nation? Are you seen as benevolent and fair? Or are you showing the world that you're lazy and indifferent and that the rule of law doesn't apply?
Todd appears to think that it's more important not to roil the political waters.
GG: Let me ask you about that, then. If a president can find, as a president always will be able to find, some low-level functionary in the Justice Department -- a John Yoo -- to write a memo authorizing whatever it is the president wants to do, and to say that it's legal, then you think the president ought to be immune from prosecution whenever he breaks the law, as long as he has a permission slip from the Justice Department? I mean, that's the argument that's being made. Don't you think that's extremely dangerous?
CT: That could be dangerous, but let me tell you this: Is it healthy for our reputation around the world - and this I think is that we have TO do what other countries do more often than not, so-called democracies that struggle with their democracy, and sit there and always PUT the previous administration on trial - you don't think that we start having retributions on this going forward?
Look, I am no way excusing torture. I'm not excusing torture, and I bristle at the attack when it comes on this specific issue. But I think the political reality in this, and, I understand where you're coming from, you're just saying, just because something's politically tough doesn't mean we shouldn't do it. That's, I don't disagree with you from 30,000 feet. And that is an idealistic view of this thing. Then you have the realistic view of how this town works, and what would happen, and is it good for our reputation around the world if we're essentially putting on trial the previous administration? We would look at another country doing that, and say, geez, boy, this is--
Look, I'm not a political director (thank you Ceiling Cat, FSM and all the gods!!!!!!!) and nor do I play one on TV. But here we have a question about 100 homicides. These were prisoners. They were in the care, control, and custody of the United States of America, and they died.
So, yeah, the hell with some speculative notion that we'd be seen as partisan for putting the previous administration on trial. We'd be seen as holding the previous administration, the highest officials in the land if the trail leads back to them with evidence that the colluded, that they conspired, that they condoned or ordered or okayed, torturing and murdering prisoners of war, to account. Standing up for what are supposed to be our principles, Chuck. Like the Allies at Nuremberg. Losing an election isn't an appropriate response all on its own. Professorships aren't Spandau sentences. Pleasant retirements with book deals and political careers that could still come back in two, four, or a few more years -- that's not what happens to ordinary criminals. That's POINTEDLY not what happens to poor people caught breaking the law in this country, even for things like shoplifting a few groceries, never mind murdering 100 people. So where do you draw the line? How politically connected do you have to be in order to get away with theft? How big does the theft have to be before it's political? How famous do you have to be before you can shrug off murder? How many murders can you shrug off, if you're a governor? A sheriff? A Vice President?
Clearly the NBC political director's line isn't drawn where mine is.
GG: So what do you think happens - I think what has destroyed our reputation is announcing to the world that we tolerate torture, and telling the world we don't --
CT: We have elections, we also had an election where this was an issue. A new president, who came in there, and has said, we're not going to torture, we're going to do this, and we're going to do this--
GG: What do you think should happen when presidents--
CT:Is that not enough? Isn't that enough?
Short answer: NO, it is not enough.
Long answer, hell no it is not enough, it does not even start to address the fringes of the problem. Thumbing our noses at international law is one part of the problem; laying open future generations (starting with Bowe Bergdahl) of American GIs to *sanctioned* torture because their captors can call them detainees and dress them in pale blue (the Taleban equivalent of the ubiquitous orange jumpsuit) and say, "we are only doing what you showed us, and approved when your President and Vice President and cabinet and lawyers wrote papers to make it ok and legal" is another -- that's what you're risking, for the sake of politics.
Never mind the murders already committed, if you're callous and bootlicker enough to dismiss them for the sake of speculation about our international reputation. What about the GIs the US has deployed? Not just in Iraq or Afghanistan but in Kosovo or Germany or the Philippines?
The political aspects you're puling about don't start to address the real issues here. Back to Greenwald, who does a nice job explicating your position:
GG: When, generally, if I go out and rob a bank tomorrow, what happens to me is not that I lose an election. What happens is to me is that I go to prison. So, what do you think should happen when presidents get caught committing crimes in office? What do you think ought to happen?
CT: You see, this is where, this is not - you cannot sit here and say this is as legally black and white as a bank robbery because this was an ideological, legal --
GG: A hundred people died in detention. A hundred people. The United States Government admits that there are homicides that took place during interrogations. Waterboarding and these other techniques are things that the United States has always prosecuted as torture.
Until John Yoo wrote that memo, where was the lack of clarity about whether or not these things were illegal? Where did that lack of clarity or debate exist? They found some right-wing ideologues in the Justice Department to say that this was okay, that's what you're endorsing. As long the president can do that, he's above the law. And I don't see how you can say that you're doing anything other than endorsing a system of lawlessness where the president is free to break the law?
You should really read the rest of the transcript, or listen to the podcast. But I'll leave you with one more quote from Greenwald:
GG: The principal argument of those of us who want investigations and prosecutions, is that our justice system ends up being perverted, and it's a very dangerous thing if we have this idea that presidents can break the law, and then for political reasons, shouldn't be treated like everybody else. That is a very dangerous idea that we've accepted since Ford pardoned Nixon, and since the Iran-Contra criminals were pardoned. That if there's an accusation, a credible accusation that laws were broken, it's vital that the prosecutors and the Justice Department treat it like any other case, and indict if indictments are warranted, because it's so dangerous to create this two-tiered system of justice.
That view wasn't included anywhere in the discussion you had. And I just think that - I'm not saying you should be an advocate for that view, although I think the Founders thought journalists should be - but even if you don't think so, that that view has to be articulated every time there's a discussion about whether or not prosecutions are warranted.