Joe the Volcano

America’s most mercurial, least responsible senator is up to his old tricks, threatening to shut down the Senate to block the release of the torture photos. Eric Alterman on why Obama should steer clear of Lieberman’s blackmail tactics.

What to do about those awful military abuse photos none of us have seen is a truly vexing problem. Obama is quite right when he says their publication could cause a spike in anti-Americanism in the Arab world and possibly even endanger the lives of American troops. On the other hand, America needs nothing so much as to put the poisonous legacy of lies and dissimulations used by the Bush administration’s Iraq misadventure behind us, and this will be impossible to do as long as the Obama administration continues to take the position that it must participate in its continued coverup.

Into this conundrum like a bull in a proverbial china shop stride Republican Lindsey Graham and Who Knows What, Joe Lieberman. Together these two have promised to shut down all business in the Senate unless the Pentagon is allowed to block the release of incriminating Bush-era photos. Lieberman calls the potential release “sheer voyeurism” and “disclosure without a purpose.”

Not only is Lieberman exploiting this most difficult and potentially dangerous of problems, he is insisting that his demands take precedence over absolutely everything else in Congress, including—I kid you not—funding for the troops.

But there’s this thing called the law. The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the federal government for the photos’ release under the Freedom of Information Act and won. The Obama administration is appealing the decision of two federal courts that sided with the ACLU. To hell with the courts, say the dynamic duo of Lieberman and Graham, who have decided to take the remarkable step, as Salon’s Glenn Greenwald explains, of writing a new bill that “literally has no purpose other than to allow the government to suppress any ‘photograph taken between September 11, 2001, and January 22, 2009 relating, to the treatment of individuals engaged, captured, or detained after September 11, 2001, by the Armed Forces of the United States in operations outside of the United States.’”

Democrats are not going along quietly with their president on this one. Tired of being treated as doormats during the Bush-Cheney era, they are demanding hearings on the photos bill before they can be lawfully suppressed.

The politics of war brought the Democrats a victory on this issue. The Obama administration needs billions of dollars more to ramp up U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, but Republicans are refusing to go along because the war-funding bill—as it stands now—includes a new credit line for the International Monetary Fund. So to get the bill passed at all, the doves needed a victory, and they got this one. That’s when Joe and Lindsey went ballistic and threatened to take everybody’s marbles if they didn’t get their way.

It’s a mess any way you look at it, which certainly explains why Graham is making so much noise about it. Any time the Republicans can wrap themselves around the troops—even torturing, abusive troops—they’re happy. (The Web site Save the GOP is just thrilled.)

And though he caucuses with the Democrats and professes to be an independent, Lieberman is picking up right where he left off as the loyal solider, first of Bush-Cheney and then of the McCain campaign. Remember, during the Bad Old Days, he used his position as chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to put the kibosh on Senate investigations of both Halliburton and Blackwater by explaining, “We don’t like investigating…” (At the time, Lieberman’s committee employed just two investigators; his counterpart in the House, Henry Waxman, has employed more than 40.)

Lieberman is strongly against waterboarding, except when he is just as strongly in favor of it. He sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he appears to believe his job is to prevent any actual oversight from taking place. And not only is he exploiting this most difficult and potentially dangerous of problems, he is insisting that his demands take precedence over absolutely everything else in Congress, including—I kid you not—funding for the troops.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration risks making the same mistake Nixon made during the Pentagon Papers case. Remember, he went all out to prevent the publication of the lies a previous administration had told about a failing war, and in doing so, helped make those lies his own. Barack Obama did not allow or empower the horrors that took place at Abu Ghraib. And he may very well be right that, on balance, we do not need to see more gruesome photographs of what took place there.

But much more than that, we need an administration that respects the law, respects the Constitution, and keeps its promises about transparency and democratic accountability. For starters, that means refusing to associate himself with the blackmail tactics of America’s most mercurial—and least responsible—senator.

Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a professor of journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author, most recently, of Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Important Ideals.