A month after taking office in August 1974, President Gerald Ford issued a full pardon to his predecessor Richard Nixon for his crimes in the Watergate affair. The public fury that followed probably cost him the 1976 election. Today, however, few historians doubt that Ford was right to spare the country further instalments of what he called "an American tragedy".
Now, almost 35 years later, Barack Obama has acted similarly in responding to no less of an American tragedy: the use of torture by the administration of his predecessor against terrorist suspects that has blackened America's name, and the country's moral standing, around the world.
Nixon's crimes were made public in the Watergate tapes. This time the crimes have been laid bare with the publication of the four extraordinarily detailed memos from the Bush justice department, setting out the methods interrogators were allowed to use on detainees to extract information. The de facto pardon technically goes only to the CIA operatives who carried them out. In practice, however, it extends across the board.
Even before he was inaugurated, Obama made clear that the country would not be served by going after the senior officials who ordered the policy, up to and including George Bush himself. Human rights organisations and those still thirsting for political vengeance will complain that once again criminals are getting away scot free. But this President is as correct in his judgement now as Ford was in 1974. With a recession to overcome, and vital new foreign policy challenges looming, the last thing this Democratic administration needs is the distraction of a protracted, bitterly divisive and probably inconclusive legal witch-hunt against the Republican one it replaced.
Indeed, the mere publication of the memos is stunning enough. The "advanced interrogation techniques" that are outlined in the bureaucrat's chillingly dispassionate prose may do no more than corroborate what victims of the CIA's attentions have already publicly recounted in dreadful detail. But what other country on earth would have surrendered such secrets about the modus operandi of its intelligence services? Britain, France, China, Russia – no way. America is capable of rank hypocrisy, but its system also provides for catharsis as well.
Understandably, the CIA strenuously fought the release of the documents, arguing that it would tie its hands, and set a perilous precedent when future controversies arise, as they surely will. Plainly the President was right to assure the agency operatives that they would not face prosecution. Critics of the CIA will argue that this latest dark chapter in its history is a reason for getting rid of it entirely, or at least for restricting the organisation to espionage and analysis, and folding its paramilitary side into the Pentagon, where much stricter rules about torture apply.
But that is a separate issue. The assumption still seems to be that the country does need a CIA. In which case, its staff must be offered some degree of protection. Intelligence agencies everywhere, by their very nature, operate in an ill-defined no-man's-land, between orthodox diplomacy and overt war. To have punished those who physically carried out the abuses and to have ignored their superiors who ordered the abuses would have been to repeat the disgrace of Abu Ghraib. Once again a few minions, however unsavoury, would be sent to jail, while those in higher places who created the climate in which such obscenities could occur and then turned a blind eye escaped scot free.
Absolution, however, is not an excuse to do nothing. The judicial system and a court of law are not the only means of investigating and apportioning blame in a case like this, so heavily tinged by raison d'état.
Nothing has thrown as much light on the 9/11 attacks than the commission that a reluctant George Bush was forced to sanction, and even testify to himself. At the very least a similar commission might be set up now; indeed the Church commission, the Senate committee set up in the wake of Watergate to examine illegal activities by the CIA, provides an almost exact precedent – and the reports it produced led President Ford to ban government-sanctioned efforts to assassinate foreign leaders.
Even better, though, would be something akin to South Africa's truth and reconciliation commission, set up to purge apartheid from that country's body politic, to which victims of torture could testify and perpetrators and architects of the policy might do so as well, in exchange for immunity.
America's shame, and the forthright and brave response to it by the Obama administration – both admitting torture and promising that it will never again be condoned by an American government – offer a unique opportunity to throw light on terrible things that usually take place in the darkness of the interrogation chamber or prison cell. At one level it should reveal how such an aberration could come to pass in the country which pretends more than any other to obey the rule of law. It should establish with Watergate-like exactitude how these rules were cynically set aside by the semantics of clever and compliant lawyers who with a straight face maintained that so long as waterboarding and the like did not produce pain to match organ failure, impairment of bodily function "or even death", they were OK: not torture, and not a violation of the Geneva conventions, even though after the Second World War the US tried for war crimes Japanese interrogators who had employed waterboarding and other Bush-sanctioned methods on their prisoners.
Even more important, we might find out, at last, whether torture on this occasion did extract information allowing the administration to defuse other "ticking time-bombs", imminent attacks that might have taken thousands of American lives. Former vice-president Dick Cheney (he of "a dunk in the water is a no-brainer for me") used to claim countless plots had been uncovered, but refused to name a single one, citing "national security considerations". We know torture is illegal. Finally, we might learn whether it actually works.Reuse content