Responding to the most popular inquiry on the "Open for Questions" feature of his website, Barack Obama said on Sunday that he is "evaluating" whether or not to investigate potential crimes of the Bush administration, but that he was inclined to "look forward as opposed to looking backwards."
The answer was delivered during an interview to This Week With George Stephanopoulos. But the question itself has been weeks in the work.
The Obama transition team, as part of its efforts to open up the political process, had allowed web users to vote on questions for the incoming administration to field. To the top rose a query from Bob Fertik, president of Democrats.com, asking whether the incoming administration would appoint a special prosecutor to "independently investigate the greatest crimes of the Bush administration, including torture and warrantless wiretapping."
On Obama's website, a December statement from Vice President-elect Joe Biden on the topic was offered as a response (similar older statements were used to address several other national security-related questions, which the transition team has avoided discussing). But Stephanopoulos made the matter moot by posing the question directly to the president-elect.
"We're still evaluating how we're going to approach the whole issue of interrogations, detentions, and so forth," said Obama. "And obviously we're going to look at past practices. And I don't believe that anybody is above the law. On the other hand, I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards. And part of my job is to make sure that for example at the CIA, you've got extraordinarily talented people who are working very hard to keep Americans safe. I don't want them to suddenly feel like they've got to spend all their time looking over their shoulders and lawyering up."
Pressed a bit -- was he ruling out prosecution? -- the president-elect suggested that decision would be that of his attorney general.
"I think my general view when it comes to my attorney general is that he's the people's lawyer. Eric Holder's been nominated," said Obama. "His job is to uphold the Constitution and look after the interests of the American people, not be swayed by my day-to-day politics. So ultimately, he's going to be making some calls. But my general belief is that when it comes to national security, what we have to focus on is getting things right in the future as opposed to looking at what we got wrong in the past."
I asked Fertik to share his thoughts on the president-elect's answer. This is what he had to say:
It's absurd to talk about "upholding the Constitution" and say "no one is above the law" if you refuse to look "back" at those who have subverted the Constitution and broken the law. And you can't have one set of rules for "national security" and a different set of rules for everything else.
So if there's any hope for prosecution in Obama's answer, it is that Attorney General Eric Holder will truly be "the people's lawyer" and fully represent us by prosecuting torturers, wiretappers, and other criminals who committed their crimes from secret undisclosed locations hidden within the Bush-Cheney administration.
One more thing that is worth noting. As pointed out by Think Progress, Dawn Johnsen, Obama's choice to lead the Office of Legal Counsel, has said that the next president should avoid "any temptation to simply move on." Here is the relevant quote:
We must avoid any temptation simply to move on. We must instead be honest with ourselves and the world as we condemn our nation's past transgressions and reject Bush's corruption of our American ideals. Our constitutional democracy cannot survive with a government shrouded in secrecy, nor can our nation's honor be restored without full disclosure.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article referred to Fertik as a "former Clinton White House technology official." This description is incorrect. His co-founder, David Lytel worked as a technology official under Clinton.