THE BLOG

Ask Obama For a Torture Special Prosecutor

01/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Obama transition team is taking questions again at Change.gov, throwing open the site this week for citizen input. The first run of this experiment was a mixed bag. The platform was open and transparent, but the official answers felt more like old boilerplate than new responses. When the submitted questions parrot toics in the traditional media, of course, the exchange can feel like a dated press conference. But here's a vital question that few reporters have ever presented to Obama:

Will you appoint a Special Prosecutor (ideally Patrick Fitzgerald) to independently investigate the gravest crimes of the Bush Administration, including torture and warrantless wiretapping?

That question ranked sixth in voting last time -- out of over 10,000 submissions -- but the transition team only answered the top five questions. Now that Vice President Cheney confessed his support for waterboarding on national television, flouting the rule of law, the issue is even more urgent. Activist Bob Fertik, who has submitted the question twice, explains how you can vote to press this issue on the transition team:

Sign in at http://change.gov/openforquestions
Search for "Fitzgerald" [...and] find our question
Look right for the checkbox, mouseover it so it goes from white to dark, then click to cast your vote

While the press has fixated on the criminal allegations against Gov. Blagojevich, for some reason, the (even more serious) allegations of torture by officials in the current administration receive scant attention. I have not heard one question about this during Obama's transition press conferences, and the traveling press corps almost never pressed Obama on the issue during the general election campaign.

One notable exception is The Philadelphia News' Will Bunch. Although he was not in the traveling press corps, Bunch did elicit Obama's April declaration that he would ask the Attorney General to "immediately review" evidence of potential crimes by the prior administration. (That response remains Obama's most thorough statement on the matter; it is still quoted in wire stories about the potential prosecution of Bush officials.) Given the sensitivity and gravity of potential prosecutions against a prior administration, however, an independent special prosecutor is better equipped to make the decision, as many legal experts has observed.

Law professor Jonathan Turley recently advocated a special prosecutor appointment, in order to investigate crimes regardless of whether the perpetrators were high-ranking officials. "Politicians merely have to get out of the way and allow a special prosecutor to take this investigation wherever it would lead," he told Legal Times. Turley added that he has "resisted" any emphasis on "how high up the ranks" prosecutions should go, because it "misses the point":

If there was a crime, we should not be concerned about where an investigation might lead. It will lead where criminal conduct is found. We do not ask that threshold questions for bankrobbers or purse snatchers. We leave the outcome to the criminal justice system.

Legal Times also asked Turley why his view has "not gained more currency in the public debate." The response is dead-on:

The mainstream media has bought into the concept that this is merely a political not a legal question. Indeed, media often leave the clearly misleading impression that there is an equal academic debate over whether waterboarding is torture or whether warrantless surveillance is legal. To this day, media refers to waterboarding as an 'interrogation technique' when courts have consistently defined it as torture.

Some journalists do approach torture and war crimes prosecution as a serious, legal issue -- attorneys Glenn Greenwald and Scott Horton have done extensive reporting; The New York Times recently editorialized for a special prosecutor; Jeremy Brecher and Brendan Smith have pressed for war crimes accountability in The Nation, and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow has interviewed senators and experts about the Bush administration's alleged crimes. (Fertik also has his own "scorecard".)

With so few journalists directly asking the President-Elect about these issues, however, it is up to the rest of us to put accountability and the rule of law on the agenda. Change.gov is a fine place to start.

--
Ari Melber writes for The Nation, where this piece first appeared.

The Change.gov "Open for Questions" platform invites citizens to submit and vote on questions for the transition team:

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