Obama Adviser Cass Sunstein Rejects Prosecution of “Non-Egregious” Bush Crimes

With many Democrats still fuming over the refusal of Democratic leaders like Speaker Nancy Pelosi to allow even impeachment hearings into detailed allegations of crimes by President Bush in office, close Obama adviser (and University of Chicago Law Professor) Cass Sunstein recently rejected the notion of prosecuting Bush officials for crimes such as torture and unlawful surveillance. After Sen. Obama’s unpopular vote on the FISA bill, it has triggered a blogger backlash — raising questions about the commitment of the Democrats to do anything other than taking office and reaping the benefits of power.

The exchange with Sunstein was detailed by The Nation’s Ari Melber. Melber wrote that Sunstein rejected any such prosecution:

Prosecuting government officials risks a “cycle” of criminalizing public service, [Sunstein] argued, and Democrats should avoid replicating retributive efforts like the impeachment of President Clinton — or even the “slight appearance” of it.

Sunstein did add that “egregious crimes should not be ignored,” according to one site, click here. It is entirely unclear what that means since some of us take the views that any crimes committed by the government are egregious. Those non-egregious crimes are precisely what worries many lawyers who were looking for a simple commitment to prosecute crimes committed by the government.

We will have to wait for a further response from Sunstein, but liberal groups are up in arms given his close association with Sen. Obama.

Sunstein and I were on opposite sides on the Clinton impeachment. While I voted for Clinton and came from a well-known democratic family in Chicago, I believe (and still believed) that Clinton was rightfully impeached for lying under oath. One of the objections that I made in an academic writing at the time was that some professors seemed to accept that Clinton did commit perjury but argued that it should not have been prosecuted as an impeachable offense — or a criminal offense. As with the current controversy, many argued that some crimes could be prosecuted while others tolerated or excused. It was the same egregious versus non-egregious distinction. Obviously, it could be argued that perjury is not an impeachable offense — though I strongly disagree with this view. However, many also opposed any criminal prosecution in the Clinton case. At the time, many cited the dangers to the presidency in such cases as raising the appearance of political prosecutions (much like the current rationale with Bush). I view the dangers as far worse when you fail to act in the face of a crime committed by a president, even one who I supported. I feel equally strongly that President Bush should be subject to impeachment based on the commission of the crimes of torture and unlawful surveillance.

The main concern with Sunstein’s reported comment is how well they fit within the obvious strategy of the Democratic party leaders: to block any prosecution of either President Bush or his aides for crimes while running on those crimes to maintain and expand their power in Washington. The missing component in this political calculus is, of course, a modicum of principle.

This was the subject of my countdown discussion this week, click here.

Here’s the problem about “avoiding appearances.” There seems ample evidence of crimes committed by this Administration, in my view. To avoid appearances would require avoiding acknowledgment of those alleged crimes: precisely what Attorney General Mukasey has been doing by refusing to answer simple legal questions about waterboarding.

How about this for an alternative? We will prosecute any criminal conduct that we find in any administration, including our own. Now, that doesn’t seem so hard. There is no sophistication or finesse needed. One need only to commit to carry out the rule of law.

The combination of Obama’s vote to retroactively grant immunity for the telecoms and Sunstein’s comments are an obvious cause for alarm. We have had almost eight years of legal relativism by both parties. For a prior column on the danger of relativism in presidents, click here A little moral clarity would be a welcomed change.

For further discussion of the Sunstein statements, click here and here.

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