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As public and Congressional calls for appointment of a prosecutor and the creation of a truth commission have proliferated, President Obama stepped in quickly to try to turn down the heat. A commission would not be helpful, he argues, and he has made plain his aversion to any form of criminal law accountability. Republicans, meanwhile, bristle with anger as they attempt to defend against the flood of new information. But, in the end, Obama’s assumption that the torture debate has run its course and that the country can now “move on,” as conservative pundit Peggy Noonan urged, may rest in some serious naïveté: Karl Rove and Dick Cheney have different ideas. They’re convinced that Bush-era torture policy is a promising political product for a party down on its luck. Its success on the political stage is just one more 9/11-style attack away.
The latest disclosures can best be grouped in terms of the destruction of a series of long-enduring myths and the emergence of some new truths.
The Broken Myths
1. Torture was connected to some “rotten apples,” mostly enlisted personnel from rural Appalachia who were improperly supervised.
The Senate Armed Services Committee meticulously documents the abuses that were chronicled at Abu Ghraib, Bagram Air Base, and other sites and links them directly to techniques that were approved by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other senior officials in the Bush administration. Even in the case of Abu Ghraib, it shows step-by-step how directions given by Rumsfeld that the harsh techniques he adopted for Guantánamo be imported to Iraq, specifically for use on high-value detainees at the Abu Ghraib facility. Among the 232-page report’s conclusions: “The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of ‘a few bad apples’ acting on their own. The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees.
2. The torture techniques were derived as a last resort, only after other techniques had failed and that interrogators in the field pushed for their use.
The report shows, however, that the effort to identify and seek authority to use harsh new techniques started shortly after 9/11—that is, in 2001, well before there were any prisoners on whom they could be used. It also shows that the effort had its origin in the White House, specifically in the office of Vice President Cheney and involved a series of persons who had Cheney’s confidence.
Conversely, the report and other documents emerging since its release shows that interrogators in the field raised sharp objections to the use of the techniques and steadily questioned their efficacy. The team dealing with one prisoner, for instance, voiced the view that he had already furnished all the evidence he was likely to produce and that further waterboarding would be pointless. Nameless “higher-ups” overrode their judgment. That group might well include Cheney, who is known to have maintained a sharp interest in this particular detainee and kept on his desk a file marked “detainees” in which he collected data related to the use of torture. The Senate report documents a series of military officers who raised objections against the use of torture and insisted that their opposition be recorded. And today a further report has emerged from July 2002 (just as the OLC memos were being commissioned), in which the military’s Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA) expressly referred to the techniques which were being reverse engineered from the SERE program (that JPRA oversaw) as “torture” and insisted that if used they would not produce reliable intelligence.
3. Bush lawyers may have made “honest mistakes” in their legal analysis owing to the extreme pressure that existed in the immediate wake of 9/11, in which they were pressed quickly to give opinions before matters could be fully evaluated.
One of Bush’s OLC chiefs, Jack Goldsmith, makes the argument, now accepted as a mantra-like defense for the Bush-era torture lawyers, that tremendous pressure and short deadlines were to blame for their failure to properly assess the law. The torture memoranda gave seriously faulty analysis of the law, Goldsmith claims, because of this pressure-cooker environment. We should all be prepared to excuse their lapses for this reason. Goldsmith is not the most objective analyst of the question, and his adamant insistence that he was divorced from the process of giving a green light to torture appears less persuasive as time passes. But the writings of the torture memo writers, particularly of John Yoo, look suspiciously like their academic writing, in which they sought to expand presidential power and authority at the expense of the rights of the other branches. It seems more plausible to conclude just the opposite of Goldsmith’s claims, namely, that they seized upon the crisis that arose in the wake of 9/11 as an opportunity in which they could realize their ideas about limitless presidential powers in wartime.
Obama insists America must "look forward" on the question of torture and accountability, but we're far from closure.
President Obama and his advisors have reacted to these disclosures through a series of unconvincing gyrations. It is clear that Obama’s principal concern throughout this process has been that the controversy surrounding torture will prove a distraction that might encumber his efforts to push through an ambitious agenda including financial industry reform, bailouts, health care reform and an array of foreign policy initiatives. While Obama came though on an election campaign promise to honor Freedom of Information Act requests by publishing previously classified government materials dealing with torture, he has also sought to dampen public reaction. But his steps have been ham-handed. On the question of possible prosecutions, Obama went to the CIA to deliver public assurances that no intelligence officers who relied on government legal opinions would be investigated or prosecuted for what they did. Shortly thereafter, his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel and press secretary, Robert Gibbs, announced that there would be no prosecution of legal memo writers or policy makers either—steps violating clear-cut rules about the involvement of White House political figures in criminal justice matters. The White House was forced to pull back the next day, insisting that the Justice Department would handle these questions.
Obama mishandled calls for a commission of inquiry into the torture question in the same way. First he signaled that he would sign legislation creating a commission if it reached his desk. Then, forty-eight hours later, in a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, he signaled he would oppose such an effort. In the days that followed, White House spokesmen attempted to reconcile and explain the conflicting statements.
Obama insists America must “look forward.” He views the torture question as resolved by a series of orders he issued coming into office. But Cheney and Rove suggest another idea. It’s clear that in their view America is just one more 9/11 attack away from a transformation in which their use of the “dark arts” will again carry popular endorsement and provide a powerful wedge issue to use against Obama. Obama’s optimism about closure on the torture issue may therefore be seriously misplaced.
documentary on the abuses at abu ghraib prison in iraq
Google Video Link