At a Senate hearing this past week, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, rallied to the defense of ex-President George W. Bush’s torture techniques by implicitly endorsing the Spanish Inquisition’s brutal treatment of Jews, Muslims, Protestants and other alleged heretics from the 15th to 17th centuries.

“One of the reasons these techniques have been used for about 500 years is that they work,” Graham said on May 13 in the latest Republican justification of Bush’s authorization of tactics such as forced nudity, sleep deprivation, painful stress positions and the near-drowning of waterboarding.

In a normal world, one might have expected national outrage over a prominent U.S. senator speaking favorably of the Spanish Inquisition, which pioneered innovations in torture that encompass many of the techniques – including the water torture now known as waterboarding – that Bush used against “war on terror” detainees at the start of the 21st Century.

Beyond the inhumanity of the Inquisition, there is the troubling fact that the torture tactics did “work” only in the sense that they extracted many false confessions and got victims to implicate other individuals who were, in turn, persecuted, tortured and put to death for their religious beliefs.

But Graham’s praise for the efficacy of the Inquisition’s torture tactics passed largely unnoticed -- and without any perceptible criticism -- in the American news media. The Washington Post article on the Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing didn’t even mention Graham’s extraordinary remark; a brief New York Times article about the hearing mentioned it only in passing.

Remarkably, too, Graham is still considered a Republican “moderate” regarding Bush’s “war on terror” policies, who was cited favorably by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs on May 15 in connection with Graham’s sponsorship of a less draconian version of the Military Commissions designed to try and punish detainees held at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Plus, in contrast to the quiet acceptance of Graham’s views on the Inquisition’s torture tactics, the Washington news media flew into near hysteria over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s tortured explanations of what she knew about Bush’s torture policies.

Pelosi has claimed she didn’t protest Bush’s tactics when she was told about them on Sept. 4, 2002, as the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee because the CIA led her to believe that waterboarding was something that had been deemed legal but had not yet been employed.

At a press conference on May 14, she accused the CIA of "misleading the Congress of the United States."

The Speaker said she learned in early 2003 (from a staff aide) that waterboarding actually had been used against detainees, but she still didn’t protest because it wouldn't have done any good and a more pressing need was for Democrats to retake Congress (which didn’t occur until Election 2006).

Pelosi’s explanation is undeniably lame, but it is a strange characteristic of today’s Washington that Pelosi’s failure to protest an action by a Republican President has drawn a more unified condemnation than Bush’s actions did.

While Pelosi gets pummeled across the board, Bush’s authorizing role in torture has its predictable defenders among Republicans and in the right-wing news media (not to mention some "pragmatic" centrists).

The Washington Dynamic

This dynamic is one that has prevailed in Washington for more than a quarter century. Republicans and the right-wing news media put up a fierce defense of Republican crimes, while the Democrats and the mainstream press seek to avoid a confrontation with angry Republicans and right-wingers.

Sometimes, when I speak to groups about this reality as it related to Reagan-era crimes of the 1980s, I am asked by a skeptical questioner why the Democrats wouldn’t hold the Republicans accountable when the opportunity presents itself as it did in the early 1990s after Bill Clinton’s election.

The question assumes that Democrats and Republicans are like cats and dogs, that the Democrats will be as aggressive in going after Republicans as Republicans have been in going after Democrats. There is also the fading 35-year-old memory of Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal when the Democrats did take action to hold a power-abusing Republican President somewhat accountable for his crimes.

When I try to explain how the Democrats became conflict-averse during the 1980s and into the 1990s – badgered by tough-minded Republicans and denounced as unpatriotic by a potent right-wing news media – I’m often met with quizzical looks, like I’m saying something that doesn’t compute.

Americans have heard so often (mostly from right-wing media spokesmen) about the “liberal media” and (from those same voices) about how Republicans are victimized by some vaguely defined Democratic “elite” that the reality has trouble penetrating the public preconceptions.

Big lies repeated endlessly do have a way of becoming an ersatz truth. [For details on the Reagan-era crimes, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]

However, after nearly four months of Barack Obama’s presidency – with the Democrats holding solid majorities in the House and Senate – I have a new way of explaining what happened 16 years ago. I can simply point out that President Obama is acting much like President Clinton did.

Though the Republican Party may be a pale shadow of its former self, a few growls from former Vice President Dick Cheney and a steady drumbeat of anger from Rush Limbaugh and Fox News personalities still go a long way.

Since the early days of his presidency, Obama has been in steady retreat from his pleasing words about the rule of law and government transparency, capped off this past week with reversals on releasing photographic evidence of detainee abuse and on retaining Bush’s military commissions system, albeit with some additional rights granted to defendants.

This dynamic of Democratic timidity also explains how Republicans, such as Graham and Cheney, can get away with justifying practices that associate the United States with Torquemada, while the question of “what did Nancy Pelosi know and when did she know it?” becomes a Washington obsession.

Today’s irony, however, may be that the broad-based attacks on Pelosi could be the one thing that forces creation of a "truth commission" on Bush’s abuses of power, even though Obama – like Clinton before him – wants to let bygones be bygones.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.

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