Quick, to the political dictionary.
Look up the phrase “trial balloon.”
Next to it you will find a photograph of Attorney General Eric Holder.
What’s Holder saying? He might — let’s emphasize that word might — launch a probe into the torture regimen that was implemented at the behest of the Bush-Cheney White House.
So suggests a Newsweek profile of the attorney general that was clearly written with the purpose of floating the balloon.
The rhetoric is encouraging. Holder is quoted as saying that the revelations regarding the “harsh interrogations” conducted during the Bush-Cheney interregnum “turned my stomach.” He is portrayed as having set the groundwork for the long-delayed inquiry into the previous administration’s clear violations of the 8th (“cruel and unusual”) amendment to the Constitution with a West Point speech in which Holder reminded the cadets of George Washington’s battlefield admonition that “captive British soldiers were to be treated with humanity, regardless of how Colonial soldiers captured in battle might be treated.”
It is even suggested that Holder could be something the United States has not had in a long time: an independent attorney general who does what is required by the law, rather than a political operative doing the bidding of the White House.
Four knowledgeable sources tell Newsweek that he is now leaning toward appointing a prosecutor to investigate the Bush administration’s brutal interrogation practices, something the president has been reluctant to do. While no final decision has been made, an announcement could come in a matter of weeks, say these sources, who decline to be identified discussing a sensitive law-enforcement matter. Such a decision would roil the country, would likely plunge Washington into a new round of partisan warfare, and could even imperil Obama’s domestic priorities, including health care and energy reform. Holder knows all this, and he has been wrestling with the question for months. “I hope that whatever decision I make would not have a negative impact on the president’s agenda,” he says. “But that can’t be a part of my decision.”
All of this sounds significant.
It is even more significant that the trial balloon has been launched as the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, California Senator Dianne Feinstein, is saying that CIA director Leon Panetta told Congress in June that former Vice President Dick Cheney went “outside the law” in ordering the Central Intelligence Agency not to tell Congress about a secret counter-terrorism initiatives.
But don’t take any of this as a confirmation that a proper probe will be launched.
Rather, this is the beginning of a classic Washington-insider debate — and Holder, who joined the federal judiciary more than twenty years ago as an appointee of Ronald Reagan — is nothing if he is not a man of Washington.
Holder’s record contains no evidence whatsoever that he will strike out on his own. A cautious “law-and-order” District of Columbia Superior Court judge and U.S. Attorney, he was a unnervingly political Deputy Attorney General under former President Bill Clinton. After he left the Department of Justice in 2001, he became a corporate fixer — doing the bidding of Chiquita Brands International after its executives were accused of employing death squads and conspiring with terrorist groups to defend its plantations in Colombia from the “threat” posed by union organizers.
Does this mean that Holder will not investigate brutal — and, by most accounts, absurdly ineffective — “interrogations” of prisoners by agents of the Bush-Cheney administration?
Not at all.
Holder might well do the right thing. He is an able lawyer who knows how to run an investigation. And, despite the bashing he would take from the pro-torture right, the Attorney General could come out of the process as an American hero — a lawman committed to the rule of law, as opposed to the Constitutional wrecking crew that occupied the Department of Justice when Dick Cheney was calling the shots.
But the Attorney General will not do that right thing without a go-ahead from Obama’s White House. The president and his aides have been highly resistant to probing the abuses of the previous administration. That stance may be softening.
But don’t expect Holder to force the president’s hand. The Attorney General is neither so legally nor so politically adventurous.
Hence, this becomes a critical moment for Americans who seek a reassertion of Constitutional values.
The Obama administration has floated a trial balloon.
It has essentially asked: Should we launch an investigation that is all but certain to confirm that Dick Cheney — and very possibly George Bush — actively conspired to implement a torture regimen that was illegal and unconstitutional?
If America is to be America again, the answer must be “yes.”
But that affirmative answer will not come from Eric Holder’s Department of Justice.
It will come from Barack Obama’s White House. And the inquiry will only get a green light if the president and his aides continue to feel the heat from Americans who recognize that the only way to repair the damage done to our Constitutional order is by addressing the high crimes and misdemeanors of the previous administration.
The pro-torture right will try to shoot Holder’s trial balloon down.
Supporters of the rule of law — led by the American Civil Liberties Union and other defenders of the Constitutional order — will keep it afloat only by telling the White House that an inquiry into the foulest abuses of the Bush-Cheney administration must be initiated and seen through to its necessary conclusion.