Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

04 April 2009

A Super Special Prosecutor


I’ve waited over two months to make this suggestion. That’s a decent interval. I didn’t want dark thoughts of retribution to sully our collective joy at the new dawn.

But now the new Administration is settling in—although hardly to a routine in this time of perpetual crisis. Contrary to my fears, Dubya didn’t spend his last few days as president pardoning everyone in sight, as Hilly Billy did. He didn’t even pardon Scooter Libby, causing Cheney to pout.

Perhaps Dubya’s dim intellect saved us from pardons. He couldn’t imagine that he and his cronies might some day be called to account. Now they are mounting a rear-guard public-relations campaign to justify their near-destruction of our Republic and to tarnish the new administration. Cheney—our very own Molotov or Savonarola—has hit the talk-show circuit justifying torture.

With the time for pardons past and decent respect paid to the sanctity of the transition, we can act.

While Billy was president, Ken Starr spent over $80 million of the people’s money trying to impeach him. The primary charge was dallying with a White House internal and lying about it. The underlying acts were more worthy of trailer trash than a great leader, but they hardly threatened our Republic.

Now we have much bigger fish to fry.

There are people who started an unnecessary war on false premises and profited from it. There are people who condoned and tolerated torture (if not ordered it) in our names. There are people who ordered unauthorized, warrantless spying on American citizens and rendition of innocent aliens to inimical foreign governments for torture. There are people directly responsible for the collapse of our entire economy. Some of them deliberately relaxed regulation and government oversight and then profited from private-sector positions by exploiting the laxity. There are people who wasted literally tens or hundreds of billions in taxpayers’ money, giving it to their friends and cronies with little or no oversight, accountability or consequences for its misuse.

Some of these miscreants can claim they acted in good faith. By virtue of their official positions, some may enjoy absolute or qualified immunity from accountability for the disasters they have visited upon their country and the rest of us. But the least they should expect is to spend the rest of their lives fighting determined, well-educated and well-financed litigators out for their hides.

Patrick Fitzgerald comes to mind. But he is not alone. There are many people like him, who enjoy this sort of legal blood sport. They are indefatigable, incorruptible, irrepressible, and immovable. They are the bulldogs of the law. We should find the best and the brightest of them, give them a $ 1 billion war chest, and put them to work.

This is not work for the new Attorney General Eric Holder, far less for President Obama. They have a nation to run and oceans of error to drain from our government. They will have their hands full correcting wrongdoing. They have no time to punish it.

But even this mild-mannered and relatively unscathed intellectual yearns for accountability. If so, you can imagine the kind of vengeance that recent additions to the ranks of the homeless, unemployed, and deportees from the middle class must crave.

Vengeance may be too strong a word. We don’t want to mimic Iraq. But retribution can be healthy. It is the first step toward the kind of accountability that used to be routine in American government and business, but which has been totally lacking at our highest levels for the last eight years.

Accountability is the first sign of a society healing itself. Even Ronald Reagan took responsibility for the lawless disaster of Iran-Contra. Yet, except for the Honorable Three who threatened to resign to preserve the rule of law, no one responsible for the last eight disastrous years has so much as hinted at it. We cannot restore competence and honesty, let alone basic morality, to our government unless the people responsible for our multiple disasters are brought to account and their misdeeds publicly explained.

South Africa understood that. That’s why it appointed Bishop Desmond Tutu to head a reconciliation commission after the end of Apartheid.

We have just come through a period of misfeasance, malfeasance, corruption and bald evil at high levels every bit as damaging to our Republic, relative to our state of advancement, as was Apartheid for South Africa. We cannot have reconciliation without accountability. And we cannot have accountability without some measure of retribution.

Whoever takes this job should have a broad mandate, not limited to criminal prosecution. For good reasons (going back to the Magna Carta), criminal charges make gathering evidence difficult and require proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The authority should include the power to bring civil suit to claw back some of the billions stolen and wasted.

Just as O.J. won acquittal for murder in criminal court but had his first comeuppance in a civil suit, so our maldoers in high places should not be allowed to exploit a system designed to bend over backwards to protect the innocent.

The last eight years have seen disasters in every field of our national life: financial, economic, industrial, social, and military. We continue to see the abomination of former high officials of a nation founded on human rights justifying torture. So far the people responsible have managed to duck all accountability. Some even received the Medal of Freedom.

So let’s appoint a super special prosecutor. Let’s spend a billion dollars—less than a three-thousandth of the money we will have to spend to clean up the mess they created. Let’s hire the toughest legal bulldogs in the nation and give them free reign.

Then let the retribution begin. If nothing else, the exercise will make us all feel better, make miscreants think twice about bad deeds in the future, and forestall us from seeking sterner measures like the guillotine.

P.S. For a more restrained but equally sweeping recommendation along the same lines, read Bill Moyers’ December 12 interview with Glenn Greenwald. For a more recent Moyers foray into how desperately we need accountability in finance and banking, read or see last night’s interview with William Black, a legal authority on the savings-and-loan crisis of the eighties and how much more outrageous our current crisis has been.

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