Commentary Magazine


Are There Forty-One Votes Against Banana Republic Trials?

In a statement released yesterday as well as in comments to the press, Arlen Specter joined other moderate and conservative Senators (McConnell, McCain, Graham, Lieberman) in criticizing the idea of criminal show trials of Bush administration officials:

I am opposed to the commission idea because all of the facts are readily available to the Department of Justice. As I have said before, once the Administration has a key to the front door, which they’ve had for several months, all they have to do is find the right filing cabinets and open them, which they’re already doing.

This matter has already received the personal attention of the President and the Attorney General. I think the President is correct in saying that we ought to be looking forward and that you shouldn’t prosecute people who operated in good faith relying on competent legal counsel.

If there is evidence of criminality, then the Attorney General has the full authority and should prosecute it. But going after the prior administration sounds like something they do in Latin America in banana republics.

Yes, it might have been a bit more definitive (“if there is evidence of criminality” sounds like an invitation to undertake the prosecutions he deplores), but the message is clear enough: we shouldn’t do this. This raises an interesting question – are there forty-one senators willing to shut down the Senate in order to restore sanity to our government, to do what the president had not the courage to do (reaffirm the principle that in America we do not prosecute our political enemies)? It would take uncommon courage from members, hopefully of both parties, to engage in such tactics. But has there ever been a better use of the Senate filibuster?

If Harry Reid and company were ready to use the “nuclear option” to grind the Senate to a halt when Republicans threatened to change the rule on judicial appointments, why not employ a similar approach when what is at stake is the very fabric of our system — the historic aversion to treating political opponents as criminals? And this might be just the thing that proponents of nationalized healthcare, cap-and-trade, and other liberal agenda items would want. Unless the show trials are short-circuited, it is hard to see how much of anything else will get done.

One would expect the president to have done his best to avoid turning us into a banana republic in which officials of a prior regime are put in the dock. But having failed to do so, the obligation falls on the next most responsible group in government — the United States Senate. Let’s see if it rises to the occasion.

And if not? Well, those plotting the show trial should consider how the Army-McCarthy hearings worked out. Sometimes the accused have a way of rising to the occasion and turning the tables on the bullies. Sometimes those dragged forward won’t answer the specific “gotcha” question but instead insist on giving full and detailed accounts which make clear the inquisitor and not the witness  is concealing the complete truth. If common sense does not prevail and the hearings do go forward, buckle your seatbelt. We’re going to have a history lesson and political theater like never before, and there’s no telling who will come out ahead.