It's time to make a decision.

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Pardon the People Who Allowed Torture

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Anthony Romero of the American Civil Liberties Union argued today in the New York Times that the least bad course for Barack Obama in dealing with the officials who authorized and planned U.S. policies on torture is to formally pardon them.

I’ve advocated the same step (for example here and here). The hitch is that Obama has waited too long to address the issue, and it's also just the beginning. I don’t have much confidence that simply having the U.S. government officially acknowledge these crimes will have the weight Romero hopes.  

For this to work as a policy, the officials who served in the Bush administration and perhaps George W. Bush himself have to be persuaded to accept the pardons. To get them to do it (and, again, it’s probably too late based on what Bush has been saying lately), Obama should offer rhetorical support to the officials who authorized, oversaw and committed torture, while strongly condemning the specific acts they were responsible for.   

As generously as possible (and whether he believes it or not), the president should say that the Bush administration was motivated by only the best intentions in dealing with an unprecedented scary situation and that the mistakes they made by authorizing and using torture should be forgiven.

This step is critical to keep the issue from becoming partisan, with Democrats being against torture and Republicans allowing it.  If torture is to remain banned, it’s going to take reviving the consensus of the elite against it that was broken in the Bush administration. Pardons take care of the legal jeopardy part for the officials; generous pardons might lessen their reputations as bad guys.

A final step has to be a truth and reconciliation commission to detail what happened and how counterproductive it was. We have plenty of that in the devastating Senate torture report released today, but many questions remain. Again, the reconciliation part of this has to precede the commission because, without that, the people who signed off on and carried out torture aren’t going to testify, and Republicans will dismiss the commission as a partisan witch hunt (as many of them are doing to the Senate report).

The only way to get the truth, in other words, is to make it clear that a commission will treat the people involved generously, even if its investigation shows the horrors of what they did.

Early in the Obama administration, this approach might have worked. Six years in, positions have hardened, and I’m less optimistic. Still, pardons are the only way to make sure that the leaders of the U.S. never take this path again.  

Obama can’t be blamed for the Bush-Cheney use of torture or for a Republican Party that argues in favor of it. But his failure to try to do something at least has been a serious black mark against his presidency. It's time for him to act.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net