A memo to Obama
President Obama has his foot firmly on the brake. In fact, he's already been footling around with the reverse gear.
Famously fast out of the traps with his second-day-in-office “executive orders” against torture and Guantánamo Bay, Obama's now looking like somebody in a hurry to slow right down.
News that CIA torturers are going to be shielded from prosecution – “in any state or federal judicial or administrative proceeding … in any international or foreign tribunal” – is the equivalent of a nasty grinding of gears. Under pressure from a freedom of information lawsuit, the Obama administration has agreed to make public four infamous “torture memos”, though it's a case of publish but I'll be damned if any of our people are going to answer for them.
Instead, in Obama's formulation, the current period is now somehow supposed to be about “reflection, not retribution.” “Nothing”, he says, “will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.”
Really? But isn't this precisely what a law-abiding, historically-aware nation should be doing, not least one described by its new-broom president as “a nation of laws”, one that he believes must reject the “false choice” between security and ideals?
Imagine you were one of the prisoners stripped naked, shackled, beaten, kicked, put into a neck collar and slammed into walls, deprived of sleep for over a week, told you were going to be locked in a box with stinging insects, or simply forced to stand facing a wall for hours at a time while threats were being made against your family – how credible is Obama's nation of laws claim now?
The US Attorney General Eric Holder maintains that CIA personnel “who acted reasonably and relied in good faith on authoritative legal advice” should be immune from prosecution. But wouldn't CIA interrogators themselves have had any qualms about beating peoples' heads against a cell wall or filling their lungs with pints of water in “waterboarding”* operations? Isn't the “just following orders” get-out one that failed to convince the world after the Second World War when, coincidentally, Japanese soldiers waterboarded British POWs in Japanese concentration camps?
It's not just the shielding of the CIA from accountability for its actions, it's also a string of other reverses in Obama's “security” agenda that's sounding alarm bells.
Hundreds of prisoners are being held without charge or trial in a US jail at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan; Administration lawyers have fought to ensure that long-term detainees there (some who've been held for years) continue to themselves be denied a lawyer and that they remain cut off from the courts.
Similarly, under Obama the Bush-era policy of treating the whole world as a battlefield continues. Last month the Justice Department filed a memorandum to a US District Court essentially arguing that its long-term detention policy was justified by a congressional resolution (called Authorization for Use of Military Force) voted through three days after 9/11 by a Congress unsure of its intended scope.
White House lawyers have recently tried to prevent “extraordinary rendition” victims suing a Boeing subsidiary for its part in their illegal detention; and, even though US courts have ruled that certain Guantánamo prisoners should be freed immediately (including one who's spent a third of his life imprisoned without trial in the camp), only one (Binyam Mohamed) has been released since Obama took office.
“A democracy as resilient as ours must reject the false choice between our security and our ideals”, says Obama in another of his ringing declarations. It's ringing alright, but it's now starting to ring very very hollow.
Here's my memo to Mr Obama: words must match actions.
* If you haven't seen it yet, I urge you to watch a really powerful 90-second film (called Stuff Of Life) recreating a waterboarding scenario. It was made by Amnesty last year. Warning: it's shockingly realistic.
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