Monday, April 20, 2009

Obama's Worst Decision Yet

Last week, the Justice Department issued a statement saying that "intelligence community officials" would not face federal prosecution for torturing prisoners. The Department of Justice also promised to defend alleged torturers in any "judicial or administrative proceeding" brought against them and to compensate them "for any monetary judgement or penalty ultimately imposed."

That's right. In a short press release the Obama Administration promised not only to let torturers walk but also to use public money to defend their conduct.

President Obama made a speech the same day,
"To assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution."
And explaining why justice should take a back seat to politics, Obama continued:
"This is a time for reflection, not retribution. I respect the strong views and emotions that these issues evoke. We have been through a dark and painful chapter in our history. But at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past. Our national greatness is embedded in America's ability to right its course in concert with our core values, and to move forward with confidence. That is why we must resist the forces that divide us, and instead come together on behalf of our common future."
Remember, Obama was the editor of the Harvard Law Review. He was a professor of constitutional law. He's smart. But here he is describing war criminals being held responsible in a court of law as "retribution" and "laying blame for the past." Oh, don't worry, he respects the "strong views and emotions" that U.S.-sanctioned torture evokes. But holding torturers accountable would be too divisive, so we're just going to try to not let it happen again.

As disappointed as I was with this news, I noticed that the statement from the Justice Department and Obama's remarks each offered amnesty for "intelligence officials" acting on guidance from the Bush Justice Department. There was no mention of those actually in the Bush White House and Justice Department who gave the guidance, who set the policy, to torture. I wondered if that was intentional. I can live with amnesty for the intelligence officers and military personnel following orders if we hold accountable the ones who gave the orders. So I waited for some clarification about how far up the chain Obama's "get out of jail free" card would go.

And then...

White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel appeared on ABC's "This Week" today and said, 
"Those who devised the policy, [the president] believes that they were, should not be prosecuted either." [sic]
And there you have it: Obama's worst decision yet as president. We pinky swear we won't torture anymore, but we won't hold anyone responsible. Never mind if the decision violates the U.N. Convention Against Torture by failing to make torture a crime and prosecuting those who engage in it. Pesky laws don't fit with the image of unity and "looking forward" that the White House would like to maintain.

What makes this even more bizarre is that the "amnesty for torturers" decision came on the same day the administration made the good and decent decision to release the Bush administration's torture-approving memos. (Thanks to the ACLU, whose Freedom of Information Act lawsuit initiated the release.) So as it sinks in with us that our president will not lift a finger against the torturers, we get to read how nasty the torture actually was. Here are some of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" authorized and practiced by Bush administration officials whom the Obama administration now promises to defend:
  • Waterboarding (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in one month.)
  • Forced nudity (including in front of female officers)
  • Sleep deprivation up to 7 1/2 days
  • Slapping prisoners on the face or abdomen
  • Slamming a prisoner into a wall (aka "walling")
  • Facial hold (I guess grabbing a prisoner by the face?)
  • Cramped confinement for up to 18 hours
  • Forced stress positions (standing, sitting, squatting, kneeling in uncomfortable ways for long periods of time)
  • Insects placed with prisoner inside cramped confinement box
  • Wall standing (prisoner leaned toward a wall to hold weight up with his fingers for a long time)
  • Dietary manipulation (withholding solid food from prisoners)
  • Spraying prisoners with cold water
  • Combining and repeating above methods
As I write this, there is still some talk around the Web along the same lines as my earlier question: 
Does Obama's amnesty for CIA officials leave the door open for prosecuting senior Bush officials? 
Marc Ambinder, of The Atlantic, even quotes "senior administration officials" saying that there is no blanket immunity for all interrogators--just the ones who acted "in good faith" following the Justice Department's guidance. If that's true, then the door would also be open for prosecuting the big wigs. But until they are quoting people with actual names, I'm going to believe the White House Chief of Staff's comments on ABC. 


Becky said...

Ugh, I just read that article in the NYT about the astounding numbers of times they waterboarded prisoners. It said something about how the Senate Intelligence Committee is going through all this stuff--I would like to hold out hope that it could lead to prosecutions of people like John Yoo. I didn't know R.E. had said that on TV though.

melondonkey said...

I haven't followed this in the news at all, but my layman's take is that maybe Obama doesn't want to lay the blame on a bunch of boring no-name appointees when politically people see it as a Bush/Cheney thing anyway. The options seem to be: long and lengthy trials to convict some guys that no one has ever heard of vs. be good and forgiving and let people just blame the ex-president. It's a no-brainer. There's enough bad news on TV already, who wants to be bothered with this? I speak from the perspective of the American public.

Or maybe republicans gave up some photos of Obama in a drunken stupor. Who knows.

Better Than Machines said...

Melondonkey, I think you're right that a lot of people feel that way. But I think that's going to change, as more of the sordid details come into the light. It might take a little while for these torture memos to work their way into the collective consciousness. I think people will start to see this whole torture thing isn't just a partisan back-and-forth between Dems and Repubs. It's a basic issue of human dignity.

I think--and hope--public pressure to actually apply the law to the architects of the torture policy is going to increase.

In my mind, if we don't hold people accountable, we are guaranteeing that this kind of abuse of power will happen again, because we are showing that there are no real consequences. As unpleasant as it might be, we've got to have the stomach to be able to drag this all out into the light.

Chris said...

Did they prosecute the people responsible for the torture of the Native Americans, African slaves, or the Japanese prisoners of WWII? The politicians have the power. They're not going to punish themselves. Parties aside, they're all selfish power hungry motherfuckers who will not accept responsibility for their crimes against humanity. Man's inhumanity to man. You don't gotta be a goddamn saint but at least fess up!

Jeff said...

I think its too early to call this one (though not too early to worry that Obama will let it rest after this).

The big fish are still up for grabs. The only people that Obama is backing are the ones who reasonably relied on the legal opinions of the higher ups. If they are convicted, we would be requiring all intelligence officers to obtain private legal rulings before they act.

The problem I'm seeing is that
1) you lose your investigative ability when you take convictions off the table for everyone who has the ground level knowledge; and
2) even in easy cases, the president shouldn't be deciding who did or did not reasonably rely on legal opinions. What if the legal memos said rape was not torture? Would the interrogators be reasonable in following that order? Murder?

Obama jumped the gun for sure, but its not a major mistake. Yet.

delaine said...

I am shocked and dismayed that MY country DID use torture ! That puts us in a club that none of us wants to be in. It's is unimaginable that they waterboarded two men 266 times. And then they claim that they were productive sessions ????? My opinion is that the whole sordid mess must be brought into the light. Including prosecutions for the architects of this shameful chapter.Remember George Bush repeating ad nauseum, "The United States does not torture." Shameful!

Chris said...

We will put one president on trial and nearly impeach him for fooling around with an intern yet we're hesitant to seek justice on a president for torture. Apparantly pleasure is more criminal than pain. But that's what you get in a patriarchal puritanistic war oriented religion/culture.

Better Than Machines said...

Hi Jeff! Today, it looks like you were right--too early to call. Apparently Rahm was just makin' stuff up when he went on ABC and said the policy people shouldn't be prosecuted either. I care a lot more about those big fish than the actual implementers. But I agree with the two problems you mention in this whole thing. The one consolation in that regard was that the administration highlighted the "good faith" line, saying that intel people who did not follow the memos "in good faith" could still be prosecuted. Whatever that means. I just hope it means they can prosecute or threaten to prosecute the front-line people if they need to in order to reach the big people.

Chris, I agree this is even more ridiculous when compared with the reaction against Clinton. Prosecuting torture isn't as sexy as prosecuting, well, sex.

Anyway, today's news has things looking up, at least compared to yesterday. I'll try to do an update post soon.