I do not mean to suggest that the nomination of Brennan means that there are no differences between the Bush and Obama administration on civil liberties. Obama did ban torture and extraordinary rendition by executive order upon taking office, and this matters. Where Obama has failed, however, is in creating the institutional incentives that will inhibit torture on the part of future administrations. His failure to prosecute even the most egregious instances of torture under the previous administration sends an unmistakable message that torturers can expect not to be held accountable. Nor has the administration (or the Democratic leadership in Congress) shown any interest in hearings that would at least shine a public light on post -9/11 security abuses. The Brennan nomination fits in all too well with this pattern of denying accountability. One would think that at a minimum being a defender of arbitrary detention and torture would exclude someone from consideration from a job as important as head of the CIA
Sadly, the nomination of John Brennan probably does not signal any significant changes in policy; it is but another hum-drum example of the Beltway’s increasingly debased sense of accountability. A consensual affair may cost a prominent public official his or her job and trigger a major investigation, privacy be damned. But abusing human rights has no consequence.
I cannot tell a lie — Douthat’s take on the Brennan/Hagel appointments is actually largely correct. The political dilemma is that Bush’s security policy without starting hugely stupid and destructive wars and without the direct arbitrary detention and torture (albeit without any serious effort to hamstring the arbitrary detention and torture of future administrations) is a substantial improvement. But, to put it mildly, it leaves a lot to be desired.