As for Michael rowing that boat ashore, see William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison, Slave Songs of the United States, for the history of that old spiritual. At one time, in the sixties with all its turmoil, everyone knew that song. That’s just the way it was – the forces of light, on the right side of the civil rights issues and then later the peace and love folks, hummed along with such things. The folks on the other side of things just whistled Dixie, quite literally. Those of us of a certain age might get a kick out of seeing the song performed by the Original Highwaymen (white guys), or if you’re into Vegas kitsch, there’s this performance by Bobby Darin (he’s introduced by Judy Garland, of all people). Perhaps you had to have been there.
“Michael Row the Boat Ashore” was one of those everything-will-be-alright-one-day songs. That the Archangel Michael will convey us across the Jordan River to its far shore, a place of peace and harmony, might have been its text, on the surface, but it was really just a feel-good thing. No one paid attention to the fine points of the theological argument. Those were beside the point. “We Shall Overcome” was tied exclusively to the civil rights movement, but this one floated above things on its own, full of hope and yearning, but quite vague. That was okay. We really didn’t know what we hoped for – just not what we had.
Then we moved on. Most of us gave up on hope and just got on with our lives, and the song became an historical curiosity, one more bit of somewhat obscure residue from times long ago. There was no Archangel Michael of course, and there was no boat, and that river was just a metaphor, a metaphor for death. Who needs that? So we walked away from whatever sense of community we had back then and attended to practical matters – career, family, home, and getting the things that mattered to us. The only Michael from the sixties we knew was real was Michael Eisner – Denison University, ’65 – who ran the Disney operations well enough. Mickey and Goofy amused the kids.
But sometimes another Michael comes along, this time the new attorney general, that careful and somewhat hapless fellow who looks a bit like Mister Magoo, Michael Mukasey. As someone who offers a little hope, he’ll do. It took awhile, but on Wednesday, January 2, 2008, we got this:
The Justice Department opened a full criminal investigation Wednesday into the destruction of CIA interrogation videotapes, putting the politically charged probe in the hands of a mob-busting public corruption prosecutor with a reputation for being independent.
Attorney General Michael Mukasey announced that he was appointing John Durham, a federal prosecutor in Connecticut, to oversee the investigation of a case that has challenged the Bush administration’s controversial handling of terrorism suspects.
The CIA acknowledged the month before that in 2005 it had destroyed videos of its officers using “tough interrogation methods” while questioning two key al Qaeda guys. This led to a congressional inquiry and a preliminary investigation by Justice – did someone violate a few laws here, as torture is still illegal, or at the least obstruct congressional investigations, like, say, the 9/11 Commission? You think? For the fellow who said, in his confirmation hearings, that he had no idea if waterboarding was torture, as he didn’t know that much about it and hadn’t thought about it at all, this was odd – “The Department’s National Security Division has recommended, and I have concluded, that there is a basis for initiating a criminal investigation of this matter, and I have taken steps to begin that investigation.”
What he means by “this matter” is probably just the destruction of the tapes – destroying documents, and not why they were destroyed. Will the mob-busting public corruption prosecutor with a reputation for being independent look into that matter? This fellow from Connecticut will obviously be on a short leash, as he “will not serve as a special prosecutor such as Patrick Fitzgerald, who operated autonomously while investigating the 2003 leak of a CIA operative’s identity.”
When the Plame investigation began, John Ashcroft recused himself from any involvement in the investigation – he had his multiple ties to any number of subjects of the investigation. Ashcroft’s deputy, James Comey, then named that Fitzgerald fellow from Chicago and assigned him full authority to exercise, independently, all powers of the Attorney General. In this case Mukasey is not recusing himself and the Department of Justice will obviously retain authority over the prosecutor and the investigation. You don’t want things getting out of hand – Durham ultimately reports to Mukasey, and Mukasey reports to the president. It’s something, but not everything. If the tapes were destroyed in order to hide evidence of who ultimately ordered torture as defined by statute and treaty, the president will be protected. And the fact is that a good number of Americans are okay with torturing these guys – even if we don’t get any useful information from them at all. Who cares? They’re “the other” – they deserve it, and knowing that they were subjected to the ultimate in excruciating, unbearable pain and panic is fine. Fair is fair.
Actually this all probably came to a head because Mukasey and the administration got a heads-up. The morning of the Mukasey announcement the New York Times ran an op-ed from Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, the cochairmen of the 9/11 Commission, one a Republican and one a Democrat. One has to assume the White House saw this coming:
The commission’s mandate was sweeping and it explicitly included the intelligence agencies. But the recent revelations that the CIA destroyed videotaped interrogations of Qaeda operatives leads us to conclude that the agency failed to respond to our lawful requests for information about the 9/11 plot. Those who knew about those videotapes – and did not tell us about them – obstructed our investigation.
That’s a point-blank accusation of obstruction of a congressional investigation, actually a congressionally-mandated investigation to be precise. But it was the big one – bigger than who really shot JFK and all that. They’re ticked off. They probably sent an advance copy to the administration.
Kean and Hamilton state that they repeatedly asked the Bush administration and the CIA for information regarding the interrogations of two of the detainees – Abu Zubaydah and Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri, the two guys on the tapes in question. We now know that these tapes included hundreds of hours of the interrogations of these very two men, but not one word about the tapes ever got to the commission. The CIA did provide written reports of the interrogations, but those reports were useless:
The CIA gave us many reports summarizing information gained in the interrogations. But the reports raised almost as many questions as they answered. Agency officials assured us that, if we posed specific questions, they would do all they could to answer them.
So, in October 2003, we sent another wave of questions to the CIA’s general counsel. One set posed dozens of specific questions about the reports, including those about Abu Zubaydah. A second set, even more important in our view, asked for details about the translation process in the interrogations; the background of the interrogators; the way the interrogators handled inconsistencies in the detainees’ stories; the particular questions that had been asked to elicit reported information; the way interrogators had followed up on certain lines of questioning; the context of the interrogations so we could assess the credibility and demeanor of the detainees when they made the reported statements; and the views or assessments of the interrogators themselves.
No dice on that – the “context of the interrogations” might have been the problem. And we learn that the commission asked – and was denied – permission to interview the detainees:
In a lunch meeting on Dec. 23, 2003, George Tenet, the CIA director, told us point blank that we would have no such access. During the meeting, we emphasized to him that the CIA should provide any documents responsive to our requests, even if the commission had not specifically asked for them. Mr. Tenet replied by alluding to several documents he thought would be helpful to us, but neither he, nor anyone else in the meeting, mentioned videotapes.
A meeting on Jan. 21, 2004, with Mr. Tenet, the White House counsel, the secretary of defense and a representative from the Justice Department also resulted in the denial of commission access to the detainees. Once again, videotapes were not mentioned.
No talk… and tapes? No one but the CIA knew there were such things. As the humorously named “Scout Finch” puts it:
So, not only did the CIA refuse the request and neglect to mention the tapes, but all of the usual players – Tenet, Rumsfeld, Gonzales (and Bush/Cheney by extension) – seem to be intimately involved as well. It makes sense because we know that the “circle of trust” in the Bush administration has always been a very exclusive club.
Hamilton and Kean just laid down the gauntlet:
As a legal matter, it is not up to us to examine the CIA’s failure to disclose the existence of these tapes. That is for others. What we do know is that government officials decided not to inform a lawfully constituted body, created by Congress and the president, to investigate one the greatest tragedies to confront this country. We call that obstruction.
Ouch! And from the activist attorney Glenn Greenwald:
Both legally and politically, it’s hard to imagine a more significant scandal than the President and Vice President deliberately obstructing the investigation of the 9/11 Commission by concealing and then destroying vital evidence which the Commission was seeking. Yet that’s exactly what the evidence at least suggests has occurred here.
As I noted the other day, it is a confirmed fact that Alberto Gonzales and David Addington – the top legal representatives of George Bush and Dick Cheney, respectively – participated in discussions as to whether those videotapes should be destroyed. The White House refuses to disclose what these top officials said in those meetings. Did they instruct that the videos should be destroyed or fail to oppose their destruction? The NYT previously quoted one “senior intelligence official with direct knowledge of the matter [who] said there had been ‘vigorous sentiment’ among some top White House officials to destroy the tapes.”
Thus, we have evidence that “top White House officials” vigorously argued that these videos should be destroyed. The number one aides to both the President and Vice President both participated in discussions as to whether they should be, almost certainly with the knowledge and at the direction of their bosses.
Let’s see how well Michael rows this boat ashore.
As for Greenwald saying that it’s hard to imagine a more significant scandal than the President and Vice President deliberately obstructing the investigation of the 9/11 Commission by concealing and then destroying vital evidence which the Commission was seeking, well, Richard Einhorn says he doesn’t know about that:
As utterly outrageous as it is most of us can all too well imagine this administration destroying torture tapes and not telling the 9/11 Commission about it.
And as far as scandals go, there’s the 2000 election, and 2004 Ohio. There’s Bush ignoring August 6, 2001. And let’s not forget the entire Bush/Iraq war. And Plame. And Schiavo. And the subversion of science. And surreptitiously hiring journalists to flack for the administration. And let’s not forget Katrina. Or those attorneys general who were gleefully indicting and jailing Democrats for partisan advantage. And what about the energy companies and Cheney? Remember California’s blackouts?
So this is not the worst scandal of this administration. But what would be? Einhorn is big on significance and has some ideas:
Well, I’m certain what would be considered the worst scandal, if we had a working press and a non-befuddled citizenry. And it’s that the leaders who perpetrated and funded the worst attacks on American soil since the Civil War have never been found. It’s an indication of how truly weird things have become that this most fundamental function of government – you protect your citizens by bringing to justice those that are known to be responsible for attacking them – has kind of been finessed or forgotten. But I can think of even worse than that.
The most significant scandal of our time is that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are still wielding power.
And sadly, I can imagine even worse. That the United States elects as president one of the über-bozos contending for the dubious honor of GOP nominee.
But not much will come of this before the next president takes office, so it’s all moot.
By the way, it should be noted that House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers is not impressed that the prosecutor will lack any meaningful independence:
While I certainly agree that these matters warrant an immediate criminal investigation, it is disappointing that the Attorney General has stepped outside the Justice Department’s own regulations and declined to appoint a more independent special counsel in this matter.
The Justice Department’s record over the past seven years of sweeping the administration’s misconduct under the rug has left the American public with little confidence in the administration’s ability to investigate itself. Nothing less than a special counsel with a full investigative mandate will meet the tests of independence, transparency and completeness. Appointment of a special counsel will allow our nation to begin to restore our credibility and moral standing on these issues.
But, but, but… if a rogue policemen seemed to be randomly shooting minority pedestrians dead in the streets as he giggled, wouldn’t you want the police department to investigate that, not someone from the outside? Better yet, you could have the trigger-happy policeman investigate himself. He was there, after all. It’s kind of like that.
Greenwald is less dramatic:
In one sense, one could argue that it’s unfair to impute the corruption of Alberto Gonzales to Michael Mukasey and simply to assume that a fair investigation therefore won’t be conducted (particularly given that a prosecutor like Durham would unlikely tolerate undue interference).
But I think Conyers’ broader point is more persuasive: the record of this administration leaves no doubt that they will interfere as much as they can to prevent any type of accountability for their actions, and that fact alone – regardless of one’s views of Mukasey – compels as independent an investigation as possible, one that resides beyond the suspicions that a passing familiarity with this administration necessarily and quite reasonably engenders.
But then, Michael says he will row this particular boat ashore. Don’t worry.
As before, most of us gave up on hope and just got on with our lives…