A small and largely unnoticed spat among the transition planners for the president-elect, Barack Obama, broke out last week. It was the first genuinely passionate debate among the Obamaites and it centres on a terribly difficult and terribly important decision that will be among the first that Obama has to make.
How does he deal with the legacy of criminal actions of his predecessor’s administration when it comes to detention, interrogation, abuse and torture of terror suspects? That has long hovered in the back of the minds of those of us who supported Obama, in large part because he alone had the moral authority to draw a line underneath the criminality of the George Bush-Dick Cheney years and restore credibility and hon-our to America’s antiterror policies.
And so when it emerged Obama was planning to appoint one John Brennan as CIA director, alarm bells went off. Brennan had been close to George Tenet at the time Tenet devised what he called “enhanced interrogation techniques”.
Brennan, a CIA company man who had left the agency for private employment, had made statements in the past couple of years suggesting some sympathy for the Bush-Cheney policy. “When it comes to individuals who are determined to destroy our nation, though, we have to make sure that we take every possible measure,” he said elliptically. Including torture?
When pressed, he kept emphasising the need for a “debate” without tipping his own hand about what he personally believed. Take this Brennan statement looking forward to a change in administration from Bush: “I’m hoping there will be a number of professionals coming in who have an understanding of the evolution of the capabilities in the community over the past six years, because there is a method to how things have changed and adapted.”
This plea for understanding for the Bush-Cheney era did not go down well with the Obamasphere – the network of bloggers who helped build momentum for Obama’s victory. The influential blogger Glenn Greenwald exploded in anger; the centrist Democratic blogger Scott Horton urged Brennan to clarify, and then urged Obama to reject him.