Such Torturous Twisting and Turning


April 24, 2009 Ukiah, Mendocino County, North California

In the past 6 days, Obama has shown us much about his political style and courage as our President. Intent upon opening up the records concerning torture, and after a Freedom of Information suit that forced his hand, he allowed four legal memos to be published Thursday 4/16/09. They provided legal cover for torture of political prisoners during the Bush years. He was immediately accused by four former Directors of the CIA of jeopardizing national security and aiding the terrorists; then he was challenged by Dick Cheney to tell the good results of torture; next, roundly condemned in a Wall Street Journal editorial; and finally pilloried by a plethora of patriotic Republicans. Obama’s panicky responses to these attacks reveal much about what we can expect during the future Battles of Barack: ringing words, cautiousness when attacked, signals that he’ll compromise, a very watered down piece of legislation, and then a nice closing speech.

“The Obama administration is caught in a devastating political contradiction” reports Patrick Martin, 4/20/09. “Legal documents drafted by the US Department of Justice in 2002 and 2005, and released by Obama, clearly establish that acts of torture were authorized and justified by the highest levels of the Bush administration. Yet, the President said on 4/16/09: “This is a time for reflection, not retribution”. He asked that we “put the pain behind us, and right our course in concert with our core values and move forward with confidence.” Keith Olbermann objected immediately on MSNBC 4/16/09: “This country has never ‘moved forward with confidence’ without first cleansing itself of its mistaken past.” To ignore our past may very well keep the haunting images of Abu Ghraib alive in peoples minds, and allow torturers to assume that the lack of prosecution indicates that their actions were indeed justified. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel made it even clearer on Sunday 4/19/09 on the ABC News program ‘This Week with George Stephanopoulos’ that Obama’s opposition to any prosecution extends not only to CIA agents who directly participated in torture but also to all the top officials of the Bush administration who authorized and justified the policy. This caused shock waves.

The United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak immediately responded that:”This directly implicates the current administration in the cover-up of crimes carried out by its predecessor and as such, places the White House decision in direct violation of international law”. In an interview with the Austrian newspaper Der Standard on 4/18/09, Nowak pointed out that the UN Convention Against Torture “requires the prosecution of those who engage in actions like waterboarding that are universally regarded as torture. The United States, a signatory to the UN convention against torture, is committed to conducting criminal investigations of torture and to bringing all persons against whom there is sound evidence to court. The fact that you carried out an order doesn’t relieve you of your responsibility”. Nowak, an Austrian law professor, has previously urged the Obama administration to bring charges against George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld for torture and abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. He said the UN was in possession of documents that proved Rumsfeld gave orders for the torture of the prisoners and that the abuse was not the result of a handful of rank-and-file soldiers acting on their own.

Reporter Martin continues: “Emanuel’s comment makes it clear that Obama has bowed to enormous pressure from the US military/intelligence apparatus in agreeing not to hold anyone guilty for this torture. The British newspaper Independent reported that “past CIA directors John Deutch, George Tenet, Porter Goss and Michael Hayden have been lobbying the White House furiously both to block any torture prosecution and to bar release of the torture memos.” They and others in the intelligence community have mounted a carefully choreographed campaign to denounce Obama for allegedly jeopardizing national security and aiding terrorists by making the memos public.

The Wall Street Journal Editorial of 4/20/09 cleverly spun the four memos: “ Far from ‘green lighting’ torture — or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of detainees — the memos detail the actual techniques used to ensure that interrogations did not cause severe pain or degradation”. Imagine how fortunate these prisoners must feel today! The resulting clamor for justice in the past few days has caused Dick Cheney to emerge from that personal darkness within which many of us hoped he would remain, to remind us all that the use of torture has helped prevent a terrorist attack upon ‘Our Homeland’. “Details and evidence of that are scarce” responded STRATFOR dryly in its Geopolitical Diary prepared 4/20/09 by an impressive staff of intelligence professionals. At the same time, former CIA Director Michael Hayden told The Guardian 4/19/09 that: “the public release of memos by Obama would make it harder to get useful information from suspected terrorists”. He apparently assumes we shall continue to torture during the Obama years.

While all of the civil liberties organizations have roundly condemned Obama’s decision, such criticism was not reported widely in the MSM (main stream media) and totally avoided on all the Sunday talk shows. The American Civil Liberties Director stated 4/20/09 that: “Torture is a crime. Without accountability, we cannot ‘move forward’ because the stain of the past will haunt us into the future. No one is above the law. Prosecutions accomplish societal healing by ensuring that criminals pay their debt to society. This is as true for common criminals as it is for government officials who sanction and engage in torture”. The New York Times, leader of the MSM, in an editorial Sunday (NYTimes 4/19/09) suggested that top Bush administration officials, including former vice president Dick Cheney, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former attorney general Alberto Gonzales, should be questioned under oath, and urged that Jay Bybee, author of one of the torture memos while at the WH Office of Legal Counsel and now a federal appeals court judge, should be impeached and removed from the bench. However, the editorial was notably silent as to whether George W. Bush or other top officials should be prosecuted.

Obama was reported to be concerned by the ‘disturbing disunity’ fueled by the secret interrogations. “He was referring, not to popular revulsion against torture, but to the growing and publicly expressed bitterness of the CIA and other intel groups at having their criminal acts exposed, and to their fierce opposition to being held accountable”. “Obama had sought, in allowing publication of the memos, to give the appearance of making a real break with the past while at the same time reassuring the intelligence community and the military that his administration will continue the basic thrust of Bush’s policies” reports Barry Grey 4/21/09 WSWS. Unfortunately, Obama’s attempt to ‘split the difference’ as he is fond of trying, has increased demands for further investigation, provoked a bitter conflict within the state, and divided those within his administration. Most worrisome, all of this serves to highlight the amazing strength and control that the military-intelligence apparatus has achieved – a veritable state within a state. Illustrating the disturbing disunity’ swirling around Obama’s head, newly appointed Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair released the full text of a private memo he sent to colleagues on April 16th: “I like to think I would not have approved those methods in the past, but I do not fault those who made decisions at that time, and I will absolutely defend those who carried out the interrogations within the orders they were given. The information gained was valuable in some instances” he acknowledged in support of Dark-Sider Cheney. Jeremy Scahill Common Dreams 4/22/09 points out that “This is contrary to the White House view that they had not been effective”.

On Monday, April 20th, the President rushed off to Langley Virginia, to reassure the CIA, some of whom had carried out these egregious crimes, that they would not be investigated nor prosecuted and furthermore that the US government would pay for their defense should others attempt to make them answerable for their acts. Genuflecting to this power center before a crowded hall, Obama called it a great honor to speak to those agents “who protect the American people and the freedom we all cherish” Tom Eley WSWS 4/22/09. He downplayed his release of the four memos, explaining that much of the information was already public, and never mentioned that he was actually responding to a court order under the FOI.

By Tuesday, April 21st, the President apparently discovered that he had placed himself in the legally untenable position of promising to protect individuals who ordered and carried out torture in violation of US and International Law. Therefore he announced seeming off-handedly, during a meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan in the Oval Office, that he may take the position that it “is going to be more of a decision for the Attorney General within the parameters of various laws” AntiWar 4/21/09. He went on further saying he was “open to Congress forming a bipartisan commission to conduct an inquiry”. Jeremy Scahill reports in 4/22/09 that: “The fact is the President already did incredible damage to the accountability movement and possibly acted unconstitutionally and in contravention of international law, by publicly and repeatedly stating that he will not allow prosecution of the CIA torturers”. The Center for Constitutional Rights has pointed out that the decision not to prosecute the torturers was not Obama’s to make. “The attorney general is entrusted with upholding the law where crimes are committed, not making a political decision as to whether the president believes it is expedient to do so”.

What are the implications of all of this twisting and turning by Obama in the winds of Washington? Has his early assessment of the strength of the military/intelligence apparatus caused him to fear the consequences of allowing simple justice to proceed? Would setting up a bipartisan commission have any value? “Recent experience with such commissions, most prominently the 9-11 commission, shows that these can easily turn into whitewash operations” according to Jeremy Scahill 4/22/09. “If they wheel out tired old Lee Hamilton, you know this ain’t goin’ nowhere. What is actually needed is a Special Prosecutor”.

So, has our President now satisfactorily polled the centers of power: the military, the intelligence agencies, the Congress, the Democrats, the media and, oh yes, the public? Can he calm the winds of partisan discord? Can he overcome the apparent disunity within his own Administration? Will responsibility and accountability prevail? Should we keep waiting for the tooth fairy?

[DS] See also Who defends ‘torture’?

…and Last Minute Debate Influenced Release of Interrogation Memos at WaPo→

One Comment

Investigate, prosecute, jail. This is the only way we can prevent this from happening again. Whitewashing this will only establish a precedent to do it again.