I appreciate the improvement in tone of the Obama administration over its immediate predecessor, for example, Obama’s statement in Turkey that America, though enriched by its Christian population, is “not a Christian nation”; even the President’s espousal of his personal faith has, so far, avoided the arrogant display of ignorance and bullying bluster of Bush.
Obama has lifted bans on stem-cell research and the abortion bans linked under Bush to international aid. On Friday, Obama condemned homophobia in particular no less than intolerance in general in a speech at Washington’s Holocaust Memorial Museum—an inclusiveness that is poignant in light of the surge in gay bashing in the past decade and the growth of hate groups in America since his election.
All these examples speak of a bright new spirit in the leadership and values of our nation.
But President Obama has everything to gain or lose over the issue of whether to investigate those in power who promoted or condoned the use of torture of terror suspects. So far, he appears to be failing a crucial test of integrity.
Fox TV has repeatedly criticized the President’s release of formerly classified memos showing the government’s deliberate attempt to whitewash torture techniques and to approve specific techniques, namely waterboarding, that have been used as torture since at least the Spanish Inquisition and condemned by American military courts trying foreign war criminals for the past 65 years. Fox TV pundits say that the President’s act is politics, a threat to security, an aid to the nation’s enemies.
The White House has defended its action on the basis that the information had already appeared in the media—in the New York Review of Books and elsewhere. Besides, precautions were taken to blacken out names, supposedly to protect the innocent or the legally covert. And, unlike the Valerie Plame “outing” in 2003, the White House appears to have little to gain politically from the release of this information.
The burning question is—What does the President intend to do with this information?
In his original statement to the press, Obama exempted CIA operatives who participated in torture but did so with an understanding that they were acting within certain legal bounds. In World War II and other cases, soldiers were prosecuted only for exceeding the bounds of laws existing at the time—“following orders” was a legitimate defense that many Nazis who did not just follow orders tried illegitimately to use to save their necks at Nuremberg.
Obama can reasonably justify not prosecuting low-level personnel—unlike the 2004 attempt to quiet the Abu Ghraib scandal, where investigations and prosecutions did not rise higher than low-ranking GIs.
Then last Sunday, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel announced that the Bush policymakers, namely John Yoo and Jay Bybee, whose support of torture is documented in the released memos, would likewise be exempt from further investigation and prosecution. But then later White House aides intimated that the President did “not rule out legal sanctions for the Bush lawyers who developed the legal basis for the use of the techniques.”
Troublingly, in public addresses, Obama has echoed Republican speechwriter Peggy Noonan’s dribble that we should not waste time, money, and energy to “look back” to offenses in the past. (As one commenter to Noonan’s original statement put it: “Great news for hit-and-run drivers.”)
Obama told an enthusiastic crowd of CIA employees, “Don’t be discouraged that we have to acknowledge potentially we’ve made some mistakes. That’s how we learn.” But the government’s detailing of specific torture techniques and fostering an air of institutional and public acceptance of what it euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation techniques” can not be called simply a mistake.
On Tuesday, an internal memo by Dennis Blair, Obama’s national intelligence director, was publicized, stating, "High-value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qaeda organization that was attacking this country." Blair seems to support the underpinning assumption that the Yoo-Bybee interrogation policy was effective. Obama, in turn, has left the matter in the hands of Attorney General Eric Holder, who is less shy of the word “torture” and has called for the release of even more memos detailing the U.S. government’s support and defense of torture.
To my mind, torture is a bigger issue than the economy. The cost of investigating and prosecuting those of both political parties who were actively or tacitly behind the senseless, brutal, and unjustified beatings of detainees, fraudulently in the name of the American way of life and at the expense of justice-loving American citizens, is worth more than ten General Motors and fifty Bank of Americas.
And if we taxpayers could fork out $6.2 million to investigate a blowjob in the Oval Office, we owe as much to our sense of ourselves as a just, moral, tolerant, and humane people.
Government funds are at least as justly spent in supporting the rule of law as in supporting military actions abroad and sustaining economic growth.
One of the reasons we elect a President every four years is to permit the opportunity to investigate and legally address the flaws—both simple mistakes and flagrant illegalities—of the previous administration. If he or she does not do so, why bother with term limits or even elections?
Our nation’s much-praised propensity for “smooth transitions” distinctly implies that we transition to something new and different from its precedent—not uncritical continuation of the same, and not erasure of recent memories of injustice and lawlessness.
If Obama does not address the wrongs of the previous administration, he betrays the fundamental reason for his (or any new President’s) election: change.
If he does not push the investigation and prosecution of injustices committed in the name of America, he does nothing to build the nation’s reputation for democracy and rule of law.
If he does not look into charges of wrongdoing in the Bush administration, even if he and (less likely) his political party could remain blameless of those wrongs, he furthers the erosion of American values and liberties and, in this case, leaves torture as a tool for future leaders with a bent towards tyranny and a cruel streak.