Investigating Torture: An Interview With Former Federal Prosecutor Elizabeth de la Vega

Promoted. Originally posted 2009-05-18 23:02:38 -0500. -- GH


The topic below was originally posted on my blog, the Intrepid Liberal Journal.

Former federal prosecutor Elizabeth de la Vega has recently made news urging that we don't rush into appointing a special prosecutor to investigate crimes of torture during George W. Bush's presidency.

In a provocative April 20th post entitled "Of Black Holes and Radio Silence," Ms. de la Vega wrote:

"There is no doubt that sometime in 2002 - if not before - Bush administration officials and their lawyers began orchestrating a torture campaign, which they calculatedly attempted to justify through specious legal memos. They continued to abuse prisoners, and to conceal that mistreatment from Congress and the public, through at least 2008. In all of this conduct, they have committed grave crimes for which they must be held accountable. I believe this to be a national imperative of the highest order."

However, she also argues that, 

"First, the bottom line: From the perspective of anyone who wants Bush and Cheney and their top aides to be held accountable for their crimes, the designation of some sort of independent prosecutor right now would be the worst possible eventuality. It's a move that has so many downsides - and holds so few real benefits - that I would be more inclined to question President Obama's motives if he appointed a special prosecutor than if he did not. There is a reason why former prosecutor Arlen Specter - a Republican senator from Pennsylvania - has voiced support for a special prosecutor, while former prosecutors Patrick Leahy and Sheldon Whitehouse - Democratic senators from Vermont and Rhode Island, respectively - would prefer a public inquiry."

Please note that Ms. de la Vega's post was written prior to Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter becoming a Democrat.

Overall, Ms. de la Vega contends that appointing a special prosecutor now would undermine the cause of truth and accountability. It is her contention that transparent and public hearings would facilitate more popular support for prosecuting wrong doers than currently exists. As she wrote on April 20th: 

"What we continue to need, in sum, are unwavering spotlights, even more civic education, and, most importantly, an irrefutable and cohesive factual narrative - comprised of direct and circumstantial evidence - that links the highest-level officials and advisers of the Bush administration, ineluctably, to specific instances and victims of torture. What we will surely have, however, if a special prosecutor is named, will be precisely the opposite: The initiation of a federal grand jury investigation right now would be roughly the equivalent of ceremoniously dumping the entire issue of torture into a black hole. There will be nothing to see and we will be listening intently to radio silence, trying to make sense of intermittent static in the form of the occasional unreliable leak. For years. There may never be any charges and we will almost certainly never have the unimpeachable historical narrative that we need."

On May 10th, she posted a followed up piece entitled "Prosecuting Torture: Is Time Really running Out?"and argued that the statutory clock in section 2340A, otherwise known as the "torture statute" didn't start ticking until Bush's presidency ended on January 20, 2009 - when President Obama reversed our policies. Her May 10th post was in response to those who are clamoring for the immediate appointment of a special prosecutor because they claim the statute of limitations for torture crimes that began in 2002 were scheduled to expire in 2010.

Ms. de la Vega's position stems from her longtime experience as a federal prosecutor. She served as a Justice Department Attorney under Presidents Reagan, Bush I, Clinton and Bush II. She is the winner of numerous Attorney General's and community awards, including the prestigious Director's Award for Superior Performance. For over twenty-years, Ms. de la Vega targeted violent gangsters and sophisticated white-collar criminals in Minneapolis where she served as an Assisted United States Attorney and San Jose, where she was Branch Chief and a member of the Organized Crime Strike Force.

Since retiring from government service in 2004, Ms. de la Vega has been among the most vocal in pushing for accountability on a broad range of crimes allegedly committed during the Bush administration. In 2006, her book, the United States vs. George W. Bush, et al was a New York Times best seller. A year ago, Ms. de la Vega wrote an incisive piece supporting Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich's thirty-five articles of impeachment against President Bush.

She has also contributed to numerous print and online publications, including the Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, Nation magazine, Chicago Sun-Times, Mother Jones, Common Dreams, TomDispatch, Truthout and Alternet.

Ms. de la Vega agreed to a telephone podcast interview with me about her views with respect to investigating torture and support for public transparency. Special thanks to Vern Radul, known in the blogosphere as Edger where he manages for persuading Ms. de la Vega for doing the interview. Our conversation was just under twenty-minutes as I posed numerous devil's advocate questions. Please refer to the flash media player below.

This interview can also be accessed at no cost via the Itunes store by searching for either "Robert Ellman" or the "Intrepid Liberal Journal."

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This should help to beg some of the questions we need to answer before closing any doors of investigation on the crimes of the Bush regime.  

When I saw this, the earliest words evoked a reflexive "No!' in my thinking that Elizabeth de la Vega advocates that there should be no special prosecutor.  Fortunately, her intent goes to a public airing of the facts and history.  
I got very nervous, however, when Senator Leahy talked of a truth commission because we've been through too many farcical reviews of critical events whose commissioned investigation during the Bush WH and GOP controlled legislature served up the holy grail of no-blame, forward-looking, whitewashing political games.
Instead of the no-holds-barred threshing of every scrap of evidence and authority, my flashback was to a 911 Final Report carefully commissioned to produce 'unanimous bipartisan consent' and assure no lookback at the Bush regime's new Pearl Harbor.
The impending arrival of that farce on the way to the 2004 election christened my maiden voyages into the blogosophere.
In 9/11: Voices of Dissent to a Unanimous Bipartisan Consensus Report, I tried to make very clear why I was proud to be in the company of the voices of, for example, 25 Executive Agency professionals who owned authority by experience and who also found the holy grail wanting.  
Why? In large part, because it "...holds no one accountable, stating instead "our aim has not been to assign individual blame."
Eight years of the Bush regime launched from a platform built by people that earlier investigations should have ensured would never again be entrusted with public office.
And, yet, when it came time for the blue-ribbon 911 Commission to receive guidance on how to do the job, there was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to advise:
"...I would urge commission members to strive for agreement on their findings and conclusions. Sometimes agreement and consensus can dumb a decision down. And it isn't a good thing ...find out where there are, maybe, differences with respect to facts and pursue it long enough until everyone is working off basically the same set of facts. That can be done. I know it can be done. It has been done. And a unanimous final report that is based on a common understanding of the facts and is based on the investment of the commissioner's time, sufficiently, and is endorsed by every member of the commission in my view would have a powerful impact."
I don't know what rules would have guided the 'truth commission' envisioned by Senator Leahy but the politics of governing have already fertilized seeds of my doubt.  
Nothing could be so bad as has played out on political stages of the last eight years, right?  So the vestigial reflexes which first coursed through my nervous system should not apply to de la Vega's caution on prosecution or Leahy's truth commission agenda.  
But I've heard 'forward-looking' too many times to believe that professional polliticians couldn't cajole the bulk of their cohort to whitewashing the landscape that would recycle another rogue regime into our next national tragedy.  
We need utter transparency for a searing lookback, and with full accountability not only on the table but the default.  That is the ONLY way to ensure the crimes of a rogue regime don't tarnish the meaning of "America" for a generation.

"I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which dare already to challenge our government in a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country." - Thomas Jefferson