Cass Sunstein was the main adviser to the Obama White House advocating against prosecuting Bush administration officials for torture, illegal spying, and other crimes.
As constitutional expert professor Jonathan Turley wrote in 2008:
Close Obama adviser (and University of Chicago Law Professor) Cass Sunstein recently rejected the notion of prosecuting Bush officials for crimes such as torture and unlawful surveillance.
The exchange with Sunstein was detailed by The Nation’s Ari Melber. Melber wrote that Sunstein rejected any such prosecution:
Prosecuting government officials risks a “cycle” of criminalizing public service, [Sunstein] argued, and Democrats should avoid replicating retributive efforts like the impeachment of President Clinton — or even the “slight appearance” of it.
Sunstein did add that “egregious crimes should not be ignored,” according to one site, click here. It is entirely unclear what that means since some of us take the views that any crimes committed by the government are egregious. Those non-egregious crimes are precisely what worries many lawyers who were looking for a simple commitment to prosecute crimes committed by the government.***
The main concern with Sunstein’s reported comment is how well they fit within the obvious strategy of the Democratic party leaders: to block any prosecution of either President Bush or his aides for crimes while running on those crimes to maintain and expand their power in Washington. The missing component in this political calculus is, of course, a modicum of principle.
Here’s the problem about “avoiding appearances.” There seems ample evidence of crimes committed by this Administration, in my view. To avoid appearances would require avoiding acknowledgment of those alleged crimes: precisely what Attorney General Mukasey has been doing by refusing to answer simple legal questions about waterboarding.
How about this for an alternative? We will prosecute any criminal conduct that we find in any administration, including our own. Now, that doesn’t seem so hard. There is no sophistication or finesse needed. One need only to commit to carry out the rule of law.
The combination of Obama’s vote to retroactively grant immunity for the telecoms and Sunstein’s comments are an obvious cause for alarm. We have had almost eight years of legal relativism by both parties. For a prior column on the danger of relativism in presidents, click here A little moral clarity would be a welcomed change.
See also this interview with Keith Olbermann:
Former constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald points out:
The aforementioned Obama friend, Cass Sunstein [is also the] protector of Bush lawbreakers, advocate of illegal Bush spying and radical presidential powers, and fierce critic of blogs as "anti-democratic".Sunstein is also the guy who proposed that the government use its power to suppress "conspiracy theories".
As Greenwald wrote in January:
Cass Sunstein has long been one of Barack Obama's closest confidants. Often mentioned as a likely Obama nominee to the Supreme Court, Sunstein is currently Obama's head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs where, among other things, he is responsible for "overseeing policies relating to privacy, information quality, and statistical programs." In 2008, while at Harvard Law School, Sunstein co-wrote a truly pernicious paper proposing that the U.S. Government employ teams of covert agents and pseudo-"independent" advocates to "cognitively infiltrate" online groups and websites -- as well as other activist groups -- which advocate views that Sunstein deems "false conspiracy theories" about the Government. This would be designed to increase citizens' faith in government officials and undermine the credibility of conspiracists. The paper's abstract can be read, and the full paper downloaded, here.
Sunstein advocates that the Government's stealth infiltration should be accomplished by sending covert agents into "chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups." He also proposes that the Government make secret payments to so-called "independent" credible voices to bolster the Government's messaging (on the ground that those who don't believe government sources will be more inclined to listen to those who appear independent while secretly acting on behalf of the Government). This program would target those advocating false "conspiracy theories," which they define to mean: "an attempt to explain an event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role."
As I've previously noted, conspiracies are a well-accepted legal principal, and it is commonly accepted that conspiracies occur every day, and only those conspiracies which involve powerful people are ridiculed as being nutty or dangerous.
So Sunstein is really saying the government should use its power to protect powerful people.
For background on current government propaganda efforts, see this.
Sunstein's closeness to the President, as well as the highly influential position he occupies, merits an examination of the mentality behind what he wrote. This isn't an instance where some government official wrote a bizarre paper in college 30 years ago about matters unrelated to his official powers; this was written 18 months ago, at a time when the ascendancy of Sunstein's close friend to the Presidency looked likely, in exactly the area he now oversees. Additionally, the government-controlled messaging that Sunstein desires has been a prominent feature of U.S. Government actions over the last decade, including in some recently revealed practices of the current administration, and the mindset in which it is grounded explains a great deal about our political class. All of that makes Sunstein's paper worth examining in greater detail.
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Initially, note how similar Sunstein's proposal is to multiple, controversial stealth efforts by the Bush administration to secretly influence and shape our political debates. The Bush Pentagon employed teams of former Generals to pose as "independent analysts" in the media while secretly coordinating their talking points and messaging about wars and detention policies with the Pentagon. Bush officials secretly paid supposedly "independent" voices, such as Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher, to advocate pro-Bush policies while failing to disclose their contracts. In Iraq, the Bush Pentagon hired a company, Lincoln Park, which paid newspapers to plant pro-U.S. articles while pretending it came from Iraqi citizens. In response to all of this, Democrats typically accused the Bush administration of engaging in government-sponsored propaganda -- and when it was done domestically, suggested this was illegal propaganda.
Indeed, there is a very strong case to make that what Sunstein is advocating is itself illegal under long-standing statutes prohibiting government "propaganda" within the U.S., aimed at American citizens:
As explained in a March 21, 2005 report by the Congressional Research Service, "publicity or propaganda" is defined by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to mean either (1) self-aggrandizement by public officials, (2) purely partisan activity, or (3) "covert propaganda." By covert propaganda, GAO means information which originates from the government but is unattributed and made to appear as though it came from a third party.
Covert government propaganda is exactly what Sunstein craves. His mentality is indistinguishable from the Bush mindset that led to these abuses, and he hardly tries to claim otherwise. Indeed, he favorably cites both the covert Lincoln Park program as well as Paul Bremer's closing of Iraqi newspapers which published stories the U.S. Government disliked, and justifies them as arguably necessary to combat "false conspiracy theories" in Iraq -- the same goal Sunstein has for the U.S.
Sunstein's response to these criticisms is easy to find in what he writes, and is as telling as the proposal itself. He acknowledges that some "conspiracy theories" previously dismissed as insane and fringe have turned out to be entirely true (his examples: the CIA really did secretly administer LSD in "mind control" experiments; the DOD really did plot the commission of terrorist acts inside the U.S. with the intent to blame Castro; the Nixon White House really did bug the DNC headquarters). Given that history, how could it possibly be justified for the U.S. Government to institute covert programs designed to undermine anti-government "conspiracy theories," discredit government critics, and increase faith and trust in government pronouncements? Because, says Sunstein, such powers are warranted only when wielded by truly well-intentioned government officials who want to spread The Truth and Do Good -- i.e., when used by people like Cass Sunstein and Barack Obama:
Throughout, we assume a well-motivated government that aims to eliminate conspiracy theories, or draw their poison, if and only if social welfare is improved by doing so.
Dick Cheney was one of the main guys pushing for torture. illegal spying and other unlawful activity in the past. See this and this. Would you have trusted him to decide what allegations against the government were acceptable and which should be suppressed using the power of the state?
Of course not. But Sunstein isn't very different. As discussed above, Sunstein is also a fan of illegal spying and radical presidential powers, and Sunstein despises alternative media as being "anti-democratic". So what Sunstein considers to be good and for the benefit of the social welfare is obviously very different from what the Founding Fathers thought - or most Americans now think - this country is all about.
And Sunstein was the main guy saying that Bush era crimes (i.e. conspiracies by certain officials to torture, to illegally spy on Americans, etc) should go unexamined and unpunished. So he is really just for protecting the powerful against accusation, investigation and prosecution. Underneath his words, that is Sunstein's sole, guiding principal.
Thus, just like state secrets, indefinite detention, military commissions and covert, unauthorized wars, what was once deemed so pernicious during the Bush years -- coordinated government/media propaganda -- is instantaneously transformed into something Good.If everyone who questions the government's version of 9/11 is a conspiracy theorist who should be challenged with state power, then alot of 9/11 Commissioners, congress people, and high-level intelligence and military officials are all in hot water.
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What is most odious and revealing about Sunstein's worldview is his condescending, self-loving belief that "false conspiracy theories" are largely the province of fringe, ignorant Internet masses and the Muslim world. That, he claims, is where these conspiracy theories thrive most vibrantly, and he focuses on various 9/11 theories -- both domestically and in Muslim countries -- as his prime example.
More from Greenwald:
Its looking more and more like four more years of Cheney.
It's certainly true that one can easily find irrational conspiracy theories in those venues, but some of the most destructive "false conspiracy theories" have emanated from the very entity Sunstein wants to endow with covert propaganda power: namely, the U.S. Government itself, along with its elite media defenders. Moreover, "crazy conspiracy theorist" has long been the favorite epithet of those same parties to discredit people trying to expose elite wrongdoing and corruption.
Who is it who relentlessly spread "false conspiracy theories" of Saddam-engineered anthrax attacks and Iraq-created mushroom clouds and a Ba'athist/Al-Qaeda alliance -- the most destructive conspiracy theories of the last generation? And who is it who demonized as "conspiracy-mongers" people who warned that the U.S. Government was illegally spying on its citizens, systematically torturing people, attempting to establish permanent bases in the Middle East, or engineering massive bailout plans to transfer extreme wealth to the industries which own the Government? The most chronic and dangerous purveyors of "conspiracy theory" games are the very people Sunstein thinks should be empowered to control our political debates through deceit and government resources: namely, the Government itself and the Enlightened Elite like him.
It is this history of government deceit and wrongdoing that renders Sunstein's desire to use covert propaganda to "undermine" anti-government speech so repugnant. The reason conspiracy theories resonate so much is precisely that people have learned -- rationally -- to distrust government actions and statements. Sunstein's proposed covert propaganda scheme is a perfect illustration of why that is. In other words, people don't trust the Government and "conspiracy theories" are so pervasive precisely because government is typically filled with people like Cass Sunstein, who think that systematic deceit and government-sponsored manipulation are justified by their own Goodness and Superior Wisdom.
Just to get a sense for what an extremist Cass Sunstein is (which itself is ironic, given that his paper calls for "cognitive infiltration of extremist groups," as the Abstract puts it), marvel at this paragraph:
So Sunstein isn't calling right now for proposals (1) and (2) -- having Government "ban conspiracy theorizing" or "impose some kind of tax on those who" do it -- but he says "each will have a place under imaginable conditions." I'd love to know the "conditions" under which the government-enforced banning of conspiracy theories or the imposition of taxes on those who advocate them will "have a place." That would require, at a bare minimum, a repeal of the First Amendment. Anyone who believes this should, for that reason alone, be barred from any meaningful government position.