Reluctantly looking backwards

RELUCTANTLY LOOKING BACKWARDS…. President Obama and others in the White House have said, more than a few times, that their focus is on current and future challenges, and they are not at all inclined to “look backwards” by investigating alleged Bush-era wrongdoing.

But intentions sometimes change in the face of overwhelming circumstances.

After trying for months to shake off the legacy of their predecessors and focus on their own priorities, Obama administration officials have begun to concede that they cannot leave the fight against terrorism unexhumed and are reluctantly moving to examine some of the most controversial and clandestine episodes.

The acknowledgment came amid fresh disclosures about CIA activity that had been hidden from Congress for seven years, the secrecy surrounding a little-understood electronic surveillance program that operated without court approval, and word that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. favors naming a criminal prosecutor to examine whether U.S. interrogators tortured terrorism suspects.

What’s more, the New York Times reported that the president has “asked his staff members to review the mass killing of prisoners in Afghanistan by local forces allied with the United States as it toppled the Taliban regime there.” The Bush administration had blocked efforts to investigate the matter.

Republicans, of course, want Bush-era wrongdoing to go unexamined. John McCain said on “Meet the Press” yesterday, “What’s going to be the positive result from airing out and ventilating details of what we already knew took place and should never have? And we are committed to making sure it never happens again. I do not excuse it. I am just saying: What’s the effect on America’s image in the world?”

We’ve been over this too many times, but the answer is pretty straightforward — America’s image in the world was undermined by Bush/Cheney scandals. Holding officials responsible for abuses and possible crimes doesn’t make the United States look worse; it makes us look better. Mature, credible, transparent democracies don’t ignore official wrongdoing for fear of public embarrassment.

Federal law enforcement officials are obliged to investigate possible violations of anti-torture statutes and other criminal laws. That makes it difficult for the Obama administration to ignore material gleaned from watchdog reports, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other sources, former government lawyers said.

“Where there are egregious violations, you can’t just brush them under the rug,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on “Meet the Press.” “And so I think that the attorney general, to look for some egregious violations, which is what he is doing now, is the right thing to do.”

That some officials even find this basic concept controversial is depressing.