President Obama, on his first day in office, can make a number of changes that will mark a clean break with the Bush presidency. He can, and should, issue an executive order revoking any prior order that permits detainee mistreatment by any government agency. He should begin the process of closing Guantánamo, and he should submit to Congress a bill to end the use of military commissions, at least as presently constituted. Over the coming months he can pursue other reforms to restore respect for the Constitution, such as revising the Patriot Act, abolishing secret prisons and “extraordinary rendition,” and ending practices, like signing statements, that seek to undo laws.
While these steps are all crucial, however, it is not enough merely to cease the abuses of power and apparent criminality that marked the highest levels of George W. Bush’s administration. We cannot simply shrug off the constitutional and criminal misbehavior of the administration, treat it as an aberration and hope it won’t happen again. The misbehavior was not an aberration–aspects of it, particularly the idea that the president is above the law, were present in Watergate and in the Iran/Contra scandal. To fully restore the rule of law and prevent any repetition of Bush’s misconduct, the abuses of his administration must be directly confronted. As Indiana University law professor Dawn Johnsen–recently tapped by Obama to head his Office of Legal Counsel–wrote in Slate last March, “We must avoid any temptation simply to move on. We must instead be honest with ourselves and the world as we condemn our nation’s past transgressions and reject Bush’s corruption of our American ideals.”
What we need to do is conceptually simple. We need to launch investigations to get at the central unanswered questions of Bush’s abuse of power, commence criminal proceedings and undertake institutional, statutory and constitutional reforms. Perhaps all these things don’t need to be done at once, but over time–not too much time–they must take place. Otherwise, we establish a doctrine of presidential impunity, which has no place in a country that cherishes the rule of law or considers itself a democracy. Bush’s claim that the president enjoys virtually unlimited power as commander in chief at a time of war–which Vice President Dick Cheney defiantly reasserted just last month–brought us perilously close to military dictatorship.
As the former district attorney in Brooklyn, New York, I know the price society pays for a doctrine of impunity. Failure to prosecute trivializes and encourages the crimes. The same holds true of political abuses–failure to hold violators accountable condones the abuse and entrenches its acceptability, creating a climate in which it is likely to be repeated. The doctrine of impunity suggests, too, that there is a dual system of justice–one for the powerful and one for ordinary Americans. Because the concept of equal justice under the law is the foundation of democracy, impunity for high-level officials who abuse power and commit crimes erodes our democracy.