A Disturbing Thought

As I prepared for this week’s edition of my Abu Dhabi TV program Viewpoint, I was struck by a disturbing thought.

One of my guests was Newsweek Magazine’s award-winning investigative journalist Michael Isikoff. I had invited him to join me to discuss his cover story in this week’s issue, "The Fed Who Blew the Whistle" (the story of the federal agent who exposed the Bush Administration’s illegal wiretapping of U.S. citizens), and his ongoing coverage of corruption in Illinois politics – now highlighted by the arrest of that state’s Governor, Rod Blagojevich.

The cover story relates the disturbing saga of Thomas Tamm, a former prosecutor and high-ranking official at the Department of Justice. Tamm’s story reads like a Graham Greene novel. He is a long-time public servant, whose family has a rich history of service at the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

At one point, Tamm stumbled across what he believed was evidence of wrong-doing. He brought it to his colleagues and superiors, and was silenced. After agonizing over what to do, torn by two competing loyalties – his commitment to his work and to what he believed was right – he decided he had no recourse but to act.

Making the fateful decision to call The New York Times, he became a "whistle blower."

A year later, the Times published a major expose on the Bush Administration’s use of illegal wiretaps against U.S. citizens. The public was outraged, Congress passed legislation providing some (though not complete) corrective measures, and the Times reporters won Pulitzer prizes for their journalistic coup. Tamm, on the other hand, has seen his life destroyed. The FBI raided his home at gun-point, seized his papers and computers, and even interrogated his family. He is out of work, in debt, and subject to severe bouts of depression.

That was Isikoff’s cover story.

The Illinois corruption story is equally shocking, but more banal. Four of that state’s last eight governors have been arrested on corruption charges, the latest being a "pay for play" scheme in which Governor Blagojevich and his associates are heard, on legally-obtained court-ordered wiretaps, attempting to auction off to the highest bidder the now-vacated Senate seat of President-elect Barack Obama.

Which brings me back to my disturbing thought: government spying, violations of rights, abuse of power, corruption – sound familiar? With all due respect to "Third World petty dictators," these are the very crimes that we, as an "enlightened" democracy, condemn others of committing.

Now, before some go too far, let me hasten to add that our system – while clearly not perfect, as all of this makes painfully clear – is, nevertheless, possessed of institutions which provide the opportunity for correction. Which is why, I believe, it is so important for us to act now to right these wrongs.

With dogged determination, the Illinois-based U.S. Attorney, Patrick Fitzgerald, will push the Blagojevich case forward. The Governor, whether impeached or not, will have his day in court.

But what of the massive abuses that have occurred at the hands of Bush Administration officials: from the memos that provided justification for torture and abuse of detainees, to the illegal spying on U.S. citizens?

There is, of course, the disturbing but real possibility that President Bush will, in his last days in office, issue blanket pardons to provide immunity to those who were involved in those schemes. And then there are some Democrats who argue that it would be unwise for the incoming Obama Administration to "rake over old coals" by going after those in the outgoing Administration who broke our laws.

Either of these courses would be profoundly wrong, as they would only compound the injustice that has been done.

While the Obama Administration, itself, may not want to open this file, and while the next Congress will have so much on its plate that it may not want to divert its attention by engaging in a full-fledged investigation – a "special prosecutor" ought to be appointed to pursue the matter.

The damage that has been done is not only to our system of laws, the very essence of who we are as a nation – but also to our image in the world.

If we are better, and I believe we are (or, at least, we can be), then we need to act better. There must be accountability, as painful as that may be – or Thomas Tamm would have acted and suffered in vain, and our nation would have failed to honor its commitment to the rule of law.