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Paul R. Portney

Paul R. Portney

Paul R. Portney is Dean of the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona, where he also holds the Halle Chair in Leadership.

Be Firm with Witch Hunters

Any other administration in recent memory might be forgiven the temptation to look back at possible misconduct on the part of its predecessor and hunt for the "guilty parties." But this isn't just any new administration. By their own reckoning, President Obama and his appointed officials are still trying to: stave off a global economic meltdown and fashion a new financial regulatory system that will reduce the likelihood of such future calamities; overhaul the way the United States uses energy, the lifeblood of the economy; fashion a new health care system that ensures access and high quality care to all; and do all this in such a way that avoids the inflation of the late-1970s. Oh, yes, and run General Motors, AIG, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac all at the same time.

Presidential leadership here dictates a firm approach with his avid supporters on the left who cannot seem let go of the Bush administration. "Guys," he needs to tell them, "we have too many much more important things to do to spend our time making Dick Cheney's and Alberto Gonzales's lives miserable. The more of the latter we do, the harder it will be to reach out to Republicans on the measures where we must have at least some bi-partisan cooperation to succeed. And even though the Republicans seem loathe to cooperate on anything, that will hurt them come election time again, believe me."

Even without a witch-hunt, it will be extraordinarily difficult for the President and his team to make significant progress on their important and ambitious agenda. If they yield to the temptation, it will become a terrible distraction and they'll accomplish very little.

By Paul R. Portney

 |  July 14, 2009; 7:37 AM ET
Category:  Ethics Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Fantasies of Revenge | Next: Forgive More, Judge Less


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This author knows something really bad is out there just waiting to be uncovered, hence the scare tactics.

Cheney and the Republicans have done nothing but spew hate and anger since Obama took office, enough is enough, go after Cheney now.

Posted by: beenthere3 | July 15, 2009 8:41 AM
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I think we can take time for justice. If Cheney broke a law I see no justification for giving him a pass. You may think I am "holding on", "obsessing", and "can't let go". But consider this: do you let go of what Hitler did? Do you let go of what Timothy McVeigh did?

Something are too horrible to let go of and I have a feeling that what Cheney did falls into that category.

Posted by: NotNowMooky | July 15, 2009 12:07 AM
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Mr Portney, if you do not see the difference between a “witch hunt” and the importance of investigating serious threats to our Constitution and upholding the rule of law, then how are you in any position of ‘leadership’? Your words imply that republicans are justified in obstructing progress on important issues requiring bi-partisanship to prevent the prosecution of possible criminal activity. In my opinion, a real ‘Leader’ realizes that without justice, all other efforts are futile. Are you merely... another trumpeter of right wing extremism?

Posted by: leonardpa06 | July 14, 2009 10:17 PM
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To classify this as a witch hunt before the facts are known is simply a translucent admission of that Mr. Portney fears the the accused is guilty.

The facts must be known. And if we discover Dick Cheney innocent of any crime, so be it; our justice system will let him go. If this is truly a witch hunt, the hunters will fade into obscurity and shame.

However, if Dick Cheney is proven guilty, then he should pay for his crime. And those who have defended him, like Mr. Portney here? They should suffer extreme disgrace.

Posted by: colonelpanic | July 14, 2009 7:55 PM
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Yes, the Obama administration has much to do. What it has to do is as a direct result of the actions and decision of the previous administration. A major part of what the Obama government has to do, is to restore the standing of the US in the eyes of the rest of the world. He is trying to do that with diplomacy, but unless that is coupled with prosecution of the perpetrators, it will only be partially successful.

Posted by: ScottFromOz | July 14, 2009 5:32 PM
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If this is an example of "leadership," it's time to give up your Halle Chair.

Posted by: sasquatchbigfoot | July 14, 2009 5:11 PM
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The Republicans are not cooperating with Obama. He has nothing to lose. The Justice Department has the responsibility to investigate and prosecute the criminal actions of the Bush Administration, and can do so without involving Congress or the President.

By the way, I agree with the other posters. "Witch Hunt" is the wrong description, and by using it you show your bias. Laws were broken, the proof exists, by not prosecuting the perpetuators, we ignore the rule of law and degrade our system of justice, our democracy, and our freedom.

Posted by: Chagasman | July 14, 2009 4:51 PM
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This is not a witch hunt, this is called accountability.

Republican administrations led us into horrible positions at home and abroad.

They WILL do it again next if they are not held accountable.

Posted by: vigor | July 14, 2009 4:41 PM
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We should let go of bad policies, of course.

But not crimes.

Figure out the difference.

Posted by: grouchcouch | July 14, 2009 4:41 PM
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"Forgiving and forgetting" is an unconscionable abrogation of responsibility for the state of our country for those who are yet unborn. Because if we do not hold those who jumped outside the law accountable for their actions, we will continue to have chief executive jumping beans who think they can act outside the law until they do harm so utterly reprehensible it damages our country forever.

It is not a case of hunting for witches, but of needing to bring in the sheriff of Dodge.

Posted by: ethanquern | July 14, 2009 3:40 PM
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Dean Portney,

What would your advice be to the Obama Aministration, if in the very near future if a member or members of the Cheney/Bush Administration while traveling abroad, were to be "ARRESTED", by a foreign Government and "TRIED" for War crimes?

Would not it create a "UNCOMFORTABLE SITUATION", for the Obama Administration?

Time and resources would have to be devoted to ensuring the "DETAIN PARTY OR PARTIES", WERE RELEASE, or at least got a FAIR TRIAL.

In other words, the world is watching, and if Justice is not served inside of our borders for wrongdoers, well this may bring about an "INTERNATIONAL CRISIS."


Posted by: austininc4 | July 14, 2009 3:12 PM
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What a load of crap. A "truth commission" wouldn't be revenge, it'd be a miscarriage of justice. A federal prosecutor investigation is what is needed followed by a life sentence for Bush and Cheney. They don't even deny breaking laws for Christs sake. When did enforcing the law become political revenge??? Disgusting.

Posted by: Frigistan | July 14, 2009 2:14 PM
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Dean Portney has a good point about the time and energy that would be necessary to refight the political battles of the Bush Administration.

Digging into the activities of the Bush Administration would certainly devour a lot of valuable time and energy. The valuable time and energy of the Obama Administration. Maybe that's not such a bad thing. I'm a conservative and I would like to see a lot of Mr. Obama's liberal domestic initiatives paralyzed.

As long as he wisely continutes to follow the Bush program in Afghanistan and Iraq, I don't care what he does inside the country, but organizational paralysis would certainly limit the amount of damage he can do.

Posted by: ZZim | July 14, 2009 1:40 PM
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I can't believe that anyone would advocate "forgive and forget". Why not just fail to investigate or prosecute all crimes? After all, they all happened in the past. Why not just move on and hope for the best? If different standards are going to be applied to the powerful, American justice will be undermined. We are justly appalled at the notion that different standards apply to different classes of people.

Posted by: SteveL5 | July 14, 2009 1:11 PM
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When the law is to be the guiding priciple of the nation, then no one, no leader, no lackey, no person of any stripe should be above it.

The law must apply equally to all, or it is meaningless.

The President always has a choice, he can obey the law, or if he deems the situation critical enough to break the law, he should then be willing to accept the consequences of breaking the law.

If I rob a store, even to feed my family, I am aware of right and wrong and understand I will be held culpable for the crime.

To have mercy or not is the option of the judge.

If you commit the crime, then those who's job it is to enforce the law shall have no recourse except to investigate, and if necessary, prosecute.

Anything else is just wrong and sends the following message to all the powerful people - "the law is only for "little people".

Posted by: maxtor0 | July 14, 2009 12:47 PM
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If this is what passes for leadership and management at Eller College, then perhaps potential students should beware. Your leadership entails ignoring potential criminal action because it is inconvenient? If Bush tried to subvert the entire US justice system into a partisan weapon, and trampled on the constitution, it simply cannot be ignored. Either we are a nation of laws, or we are not. no middle ground.

Posted by: jgillies | July 14, 2009 12:30 PM
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It's never a good time to take a good look at our warts in the mirror. To paraphrase an old right-wing defense of overreaching by law enforcement-if you don't have anything to hide then why resist an intrusive search?

If all a president has to do to avoid scrutiny of his actions is to gin up a slew of crises that keep his successor distracted, then every administration would do it. And any continuity the US government could claim would be toast and the end of every election cycle would be like jumping off a cliff. We'd be just another banana republic and that's not good for business.

Posted by: set_the_controls | July 14, 2009 12:27 PM
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Without confidence in the rule of law applying to the powerful, ordinary people will have no rational basis for not trying to join in the wholesale gaming of a stacked system, and all of America's existing problems will be harder not easier to solve.

Who in their right mind would trust an American promise on a trade treaty when Americans conspicuously break their word on not launching aggressive invasions that occassion mass murder and about not torturing?

Who is going to trust a company director? A juror drawn from a poll of lawless citizens, a cop or a soldier taking an oath that everyones knows will not be enforced?

Answer - no one, not even Americans themselves!

Posted by: BrettPaatsch1 | July 14, 2009 12:24 PM
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Unlike Bush, we can multi-task. The societal reason for having a criminal justice system is because by our nature, we don't let go of wrongs committed when the evil doer gets away with it. It will eat at us and prevent us from moving forward when wrong goes unnoticed and unpunished.

Posted by: SarahBB | July 14, 2009 11:46 AM
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Seems to me your argument is wrapped around the notion that an investigation into whether or not persons within the Bush administration committed war crimes (or any other crimes), should be traded for a few Republican votes in Congress, which have so far not been forthcoming...even with the president having shown no interest in investigating the previous administration. Democrats are not looking for a trade-off. We're looking for justice. We're looking for some assurance that the laws of this land apply to everyone, and most especially to those who have the most power.

It is true that President Obama has a lot to do to straighten out the mess the Republicans left behind, but he has already proven that he is quite capable of multi-tasking.

Posted by: jules3621 | July 14, 2009 11:36 AM
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People are sure throwing the "criminal" term around hoping, I guess, that if they say it frequently enough that it will become accepted as truth. Where is the criminality? Director Pinneta himself informed Congress when he brought this matter to their attention that there was nothing illegal or improper about the proposed program (see Wall Street Journal article). By law, the President is not required to brief Congress on every covert operation being considered, only those that will actually be implemented. VP Chenney was within the law directing CIA not to discuss this concept with Congress until all the legal and political ramifications were explored and they were ready to execute. In addition, by the way, this operation was never actually carried out--it sat on someone's desk at CIA for eight years and never got off the ground. Again, I ask, where is the criminality? (And yes, I'm aware that the US foreswore assassination of foreign political figures and heads of state, but nothing in our law says that we can not attack the leadership and command and control of an enemy combatant organization, which is how Bin Laden and Al-Queda have been characterized since 9/11)

Posted by: williamolson | July 14, 2009 11:35 AM
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Dean Portney:

Your comments simply carry forward the wrong-headed idea that crimes cannot be prosecuted and government cannot go forward at the same time.

Posted by: Patriot3 | July 14, 2009 11:27 AM
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Yes, an investigation of possible abuse by the bush/cheney administration is imperative.
The apparent abuse by the former vp must be investigated.torture,cronyism and contracts,secret energy meeting abuse,refusal to abide by checks and balances.
bush/cheney greatest power-least accountable.

Posted by: jama452 | July 14, 2009 11:11 AM
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We are talking about potentially some of the worst crimes ever committed by an administration - creating false facts to start an unecessary war, violating the Geneva Conventions are just two - and we should just IGNORE that this happened?

It is not revenge that we seek but simple justice. If Obama chooses to ignore these transgressions he should give a prime time address and explain why some (Bush and Cheney) are above the law while others (you and me) are not. He should also state unequivacably that we do indeed live in a class society in which certain groups are granted privileges that the rest of us do not have.

To find that the Republicans are the ones who most support ignoring the past is particularly galling. Clinton had an affair. He lied about it. This affair had NOTHING to do with the way the country was being run. Yet the Republicans spent 40 million taxpayer dollars to prove what all of us already knew - Clinton had an affair and lied about it. Perhaps the Republicans can return that 40 million before they go off running their mouths.

Posted by: nyrunner101 | July 14, 2009 11:06 AM
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So you are saying that the pursuit of accountability for past criminal actions is a witch hunt and should never happen? So does this apply to any criminal activities by anyone, or just Republican Government Officials?

ANY criminal activity should be investigated and punished.

Posted by: alysheba_3 | July 14, 2009 10:42 AM
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Mr. Portney,
I agree with you but this is politics. Had you acknowledge the republicans went way to far persecuting President Clinton (and they still are) you would have been on creditable grounds to make the legitimate points you made but you didn't! You are asking Democrats to be better than their republican counter parts and they are not! So your points are moot!

Posted by: SteelWheel25 | July 14, 2009 10:40 AM
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Calling it a witch hunt is an effective way to marginalize possible infractions of the law by the former administration. Witch hunt implies trying to shape facts to fit a crime.

This is not a witch hunt however. The Bush administration has not been forthcoming and because of that it's important to find out the truth. Saying you're too busy to seek truth is dangerous.

If President Obama doesn't want future administrations to call him to the stand for his actions all he needs to do is behave legally and be forthcoming about his administration's actions. He should not protect potential criminal actions in order to protect himself. You can see where that leads and that is harmful to America.

Posted by: arancia12 | July 14, 2009 10:38 AM
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There's a point to saying that all Democrats need to devote 100% of their attention to the various disasters in front of us regarding defense, health care, our financial system, global competitiveness etc.....but you can't discount calls for accountability as a witch hunt.

If Obama doesn't want his future predecessor to call him to the stand for actions taken during his tenure then I suggest that he stay within his constitutional boundaries. Bush sure didn't.

Posted by: theobserver4 | July 14, 2009 10:27 AM
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