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Swanson: Reversing the policies does not provide a deterrent

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Should Obama prosecute Bush/Cheney?

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network, our continuing coverage of the inauguration of Barack Obama, now the first days of the presidency of Barack Obama. And before the inauguration of Barack Obama, we saw President Bush get on a helicopter and wave goodbye. In Barack Obama’s speech, President Bush was thanked for his years of service, but some people think perhaps he should be thanked, but he should also be prosecuted. To discuss and debate that question we’re joined by David Swanson, who is a board member of Progressive Democrats of America, and also worked with, and wrote the introduction to a book, who I’m supposed to remember the title of, and I think it’s The 35 Impeachments—The 35 Reasons—. You’re going to have to help me, David. What is it called?

DAVID SWANSON, PROGRESSIVE DEMOCRATS OF AMERICA: The 35 Articles of Impeachment, by Dennis Kucinich, and the Case for Prosecution, with an introduction by myself.

JAY: Good. Thank you. And we are also joined by Dr. Faye Williams. Dr. Williams is chair of the National Congress of Black Women, and she’s been a yellow dog Democrat for years. And I’m supposed to have known that story, and I suppose most do, but that means that she will vote for a yellow dog before she’ll vote for a Republican. Thanks for joining us.

DR. E. FAYE WILLIAMS, CHAIR, NATIONAL CONGRESS OF BLACK WOMEN: You are not very kind in saying that. Of course, it’s very Barack-ish to say that we will get along with anyone, and we still will, but I prefer to remain a Democrat, as I have been my whole life.

JAY: So did I overstate it with the “yellow dog” joke?

WILLIAMS: No, actually, you’re correct. Down south we just have that story that if there’s someone else and an old yellow dog, if the yellow dog is a Democrat, we vote for the yellow dog. So that’s how strong I am.

JAY: So we will take it as a given that you were rather ecstatic on the day of the inauguration.

WILLIAMS: I was. I guess I’ve been very calm about it, because I was a little different from many of the other—particularly all the African Americans that you’ll hear say, “I never thought I’d live to see the day that we’d have a black president.” I couldn’t have worked for him for two years to help get him elected without believing he could win. So it was not a surprise to me. But I was always aware of the possibility of, you know, what has happened in previous elections, including one that I ran as a Democrat down south in Louisiana. I was announced as the winner, and it was called back. This was prior to Al Gore in Florida. And they said I lost by 0.6 percent. So I was always conscious of that, but I always believed he could win.

JAY: Now, just in the beginning of your answer, you said, “Obama wants to get along.”


JAY: And he spoke at a ball the day before the inauguration, where John McCain was the special guest, and he spoke in quite glowing terms about John McCain. He had a meeting with a bunch of right-wing columnists, from George Will and Krauthammer and others. And there’s been a lot of this kind of reaching out.


JAY: But within the context of that, the issue of the prosecution of Bush and Cheney for crimes that they have apparently admitted to, both President Obama and his new attorney general were asked: is waterboarding torture? And they both said yes, it’s torture, and they both consider torture illegal. George Bush and Dick Cheney went on national television, and both said, “We authorized waterboarding.” So why is Obama not wanting to direct his attorney general to begin the prosecution of George Bush and Dick Cheney?

WILLIAMS: Well, let me just say that I don’t know exactly his answer, but I would say that he probably does not want to get bogged down and looking backwards. But as a lawyer, I too believe they should be prosecuted. But, on the other hand, I’m a minister, and I believe in redemption, and I believe that it’s possible that we could get bogged down for years if we’re going to prosecute them.

JAY: But don’t most people find redemption in prison? That’s the place to find it.

WILLIAMS: That may well be, and I’m not opposed to their finding it there. That’s the point I’m making, that I believe they should be prosecuted. If it were an ordinary citizen who broke the law or did what they did, that person would be prosecuted. What I don’t want to do is for us to spend the next four years on a prosecution. I’d like to see this move forward with the economy and with ending the war in Iraq and many other things. And if I had to choose, I would then choose not to prosecute. But I believe that the question was: should they prosecute? My answer is yes.

JAY: Okay. But in real terms, Obama has made it pretty clear he’s not going to direct that, that if the attorney general kind of does it, he wouldn’t stop it. But he told either Meet the Press or Stephanopoulos, he said, “We should look forward. Prosecuting is looking backwards.” But what prosecution isn’t looking backwards?

WILLIAMS: That’s correct. And I think, also, President Obama has said that people do these things, they make things happen. So if the people decide they should be prosecuted, then I see no way that President Obama would have around it. He certainly has a big email list himself, but there are other people who have big email lists, other people who do demonstrations, and I believe him to be a person of the people who will listen to the people. [inaudible]

JAY: David Swanson is someone who’s been out there for quite some time, with the movement to impeach Bush and Cheney, and then the movement to prosecute Bush and Cheney. Has President Obama been listening?

SWANSON: Not yet. I mean, the number one demand of his organized people on his election Web site and at the meetings that they organized was keep your promise and vote “no” on this FISA bill that will try to legalize warrantless spying, which is banned by our Constitution, and, of course, he flipped and voted “yes.” And then the number one question on his transition Web site,, was: will you appoint a special prosecutor? And he declined to answer the question, but that backfired because George Stephanopoulos asked him on ABC and it got reported in all the major newspapers. And, in fact, prosecution is now a topic of discussion, a possibility that’s in the air, that’s in all the corporate media in this country in a way that impeachment never was. So if you’re looking for a campaign to get involved in based on the likelihood of success, prosecution at the federal level (and there are lots of other avenues for it) is actually more likely now than impeachment ever was.

JAY: But on the Stephanopoulos interview, Obama made it really clear: prosecution is looking backwards; we have great problems in front of us; we need to look forward. And as Faye Says, if you initiate the prosecution, do you not initiate all these people he’s reaching out to to try to make as allies, you know, crossing the aisle and all the rest of this? Do you then make them all enemies? And so, as a pragmatic political decision, you actually don’t do it? I mean, that seems to be where Obama’s at.

SWANSON: Well, there’s a whole lot of points here. You know, I have no interest in looking backwards for the sake of looking backwards. I have no interest in hurting anyone or any ill will toward anyone. I do not support the death penalty and do not want it for anyone, because it doesn’t deter crime. But had Richard Nixon gone to prison, had we gotten monthly reports of his redemption, of his regrets over a period of decades, we never would have had a President George W. Bush and, essentially, a President Dick Cheney committing the sorts of crimes they committed. If we let them go, we are almost guaranteeing that within a generation we will have someone worse, and that’s even if the Obama administration reverses the vast bulk of the illegal and abusive policies, because reversing the policies does not provide a deterrent to future presidents and vice presidents, except that whoever comes after them won’t engage in their crimes. That’s no deterrent at all. And so this is about deterring future crime by anyone, in any party, Democrat, Repulican, or otherwise. So, yes, we have to reach out; yes, we have to be forgiving; yes, we need brotherly love; but we need to learn to love each other after we keep each other alive, and right now we are killing people in massive numbers.

JAY: So what do you make of this argument? Aren’t you kind of, by saying the people have to make him do it—? I mean, they elected him already. I mean, if it’s the right thing to do, he should just do it.

WILLIAMS: Well, I think so. I think he’s almost been our president for the last couple of months since the election in November, and he’s had a lot of issues out there. But I’m agreeing with David. I think we the people [inaudible]

JAY: We’re supposed to have a debate here, so—.

WILLIAMS: [inaudible] put that pressure on him. Well, you can agree in debates on some points, but not everything. I said, yes, I believe in the prosecution, but I also believe in redemption. I’m not concerned about, you know, anything that’s harsh in terms of a punishment. But I believe in order for other people to abide by the law, we must at least look to some kind of prosecution.

JAY: But you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say, “A prosecution will bog us down, although I’m for the prosecution,” because you’ve got to make a choice. So if you’re going to make the choice, given where we are at this moment in time, you think he’s correct to choose not to prosecute.

WILLIAMS: I think not. I would think that he should prosecute.

SWANSON: I think I might be able to help with the dilemma a little bit, because we think—.

WILLIAMS: Help me, help me, David.

SWANSON: Well, maybe this is Paul’s dilemma. I mean, we think in terms of past experiences, Richard Nixon and dozens of others, where prosecutions and investigations involved determining whether crimes had been committed and whether there was evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. Here we have a case that’s absolutely unprecedented, so we don’t know how to think about it, because the president and the vice president are on TV confessing to felonies, confessing to violating FISA, confessing to torture, confessing to illegal wars, and so on. And so I don’t need every detail; I don’t need the year-and-a-half commission that John Conyers wants to do; I don’t need prosecution on every count. I just need a quick and dirty prosecution for the most blatant crimes, because otherwise—.

JAY: Okay. We’re going to follow this up in another segment. In the next segment of our interview, what I’m going to ask you is is part of the problem perhaps—and we did the story “Will a king prosecute a king?” I wonder: does anyone actually want to weaken the imperial presidency? And if this president is actually willing to draw back on those powers, what would that look like? In the next segment of our interview, please join us on The Real News Network.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Dr. E. Faye Williams is the Chair of the National Congress for Black Women. Williams is former Counsel to the U.S. Congress and Professor of International Law at Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge, LA. She previously served as Legislative Counsel and Chief of Staff for a District of Columbia Council member.

David Swanson is the creator of, the Washington Director of and co-founder of the coalition; a board member of Progressive Democrats of America; of the Backbone Campaign; and of Voters for Peace. He serves on a working group of United for Peace and Justice. He has worked as a newspaper reporter and as a communications director, with jobs including Press Secretary for Dennis Kucinich's 2004 presidential campaign.

David Swanson's books include: War Is A Lie (2010), When the World Outlawed War (2011), and The Military Industrial Complex at 50 (2012).  He is the host of  Talk Nation Radio. He has been a journalist, activist, organizer, educator, and agitator.  Swanson helped plan the nonviolent occupation of Freedom Plaza in Washington DC in 2011.  Swanson holds a master's degree in philosophy from the University of Virginia. He has worked as a newspaper reporter and as a communications director, with jobs including press secretary for Dennis Kucinich's 2004 presidential campaign, media coordinator for the International Labor Communications Association, and three years as communications coordinator for ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. He blogs at and and works as Campaign Coordinator for the online activist organization Swanson also works on the communications committee of Veterans For Peace, of which he is an associate (non-veteran) member. Swanson is Secretary of Peace in the Green Shadow Cabinet.