US election: Obama and McCain shirk discussion of Guantánamo and executive overreach


While pundits have been busy analyzing Friday’s Presidential debate, no one has been talking about a crucial issue that has completely disappeared from the election campaign since Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination in August, even though it is absolutely central to the complaints about the Bush administration’s behaviour over the last seven years.

The issue is unfettered executive power, and it has been manifested, to the horror of the world, and the dismay of Americans who pride themselves on being a nation founded on the rule of law, in the endorsement of torture as official US policy, the transformation of the CIA into an organization that has run a colossal “extraordinary rendition programme” and a network of secret prisons around the world, and the detention of thousands of prisoners without charge or trial in a legal black hole between the Geneva Conventions and the US court system.

In Guantánamo, Afghanistan and Iraq, over 20,000 prisoners in US custody are held neither as Prisoners of War, who would be protected from “humiliating and degrading treatment” and coercive interrogations by the Geneva Conventions, nor as criminal suspects who will be tried in a US court. The only trials put forward by the government — the Military Commissions at Guantánamo — are so tainted by accusations of pro-prosecution bias and the suppression of exculpatory evidence that the administration is fighting a losing battle to establish their legitimacy, nearly seven years after they were set up by Dick Cheney and David Addington.

John McCainIn John McCain’s case, his refusal to discuss executive overreach is understandable. Republicans have been encouraged to endorse without question the bellicose rhetoric of the “War on Terror” and to turn a blind eye to the government’s shredding of the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Forget the rights of foreign prisoners; warrantless wiretapping and the President’s self-declared right to imprison anyone as an “enemy combatant” — even American citizens — have been sold as vital steps to protect America, rather than a naked power grab by a Vice President who believes, above all, in unfettered executive power.

Although McCain has stated that he wants to close Guantánamo, and has often declared his opposition to the use of torture by US forces, he has flip-flopped horribly as the election has approached. Back in February, he conveniently shelved his lifelong opposition to torture by voting against a bill banning the use of torture by the CIA, and after the Supreme Court ruled, in June, that the prisoners at Guantánamo have constitutional habeas corpus rights, he declared that it was “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.”

Barack ObamaThe disappointment, therefore, is in Barack Obama’s unwillingness to tackle the administration’s crimes head-on. His team has presumably discovered that neither the plight of prisoners held beyond the law nor the executive’s dictatorial power grab is of paramount importance to voters, but this is lamentable for two reasons: firstly, because Obama clearly both knows and cares about the law, and secondly because it is the Bush administration’s quest for unfettered executive power that has led to almost all the ills that currently plague the United States.

On respecting the law, Obama has a proven track record. He has worked with lawyers representing the Guantánamo prisoners, and has consistently voted against ill-conceived “War on Terror” legislation. Last August, in a speech in Washington D.C., he touched on all the issues that are currently lacking in his campaign:

In the dark halls of Abu Ghraib and the detention cells of Guantánamo, we have compromised our most precious values. What could have been a call to a generation has become an excuse for unchecked presidential power. A tragedy that united us was turned into a political wedge issue used to divide us.

And as recently as June, after the Supreme Court’s ruling, he declared that the ruling was “an important step toward reestablishing our credibility as a nation committed to the rule of law, and rejecting a false choice between fighting terrorism and respecting habeas corpus.”

This is not only fine oratory; it is also, I believe, essential to Obama’s campaign for change. In order to demonstrate quite how different he is from the Republicans who have brought the country to the brink of ruin, he should use his opposition to the Iraq war as a springboard for an assault on the executive’s power grab, in which all the horrors of the “War on Terror,” outlined above, would also be included. Instead of playing on the folly of an expensive war without end, he should be focusing on the war’s origins, and nailing it as the supreme gesture of a power-crazed executive, acting without restraint and with the arrogant assumption that it has destroyed both the “quaint” principles on which the United States was founded, and the separation of powers that was established to prevent tyranny.

Andy is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on Liberal Conspiracy.

2 Responses

  1. the talking dog says...

    A couple of things are going on there. For one, no one has any doubt whatsoever that as between the two McCain is the likelier to backslide, and “realize” the “danger” prsented by those held per the war on terror at GTMO (and Bagram/Kandahar, Pol-e-Charkhi, Abu Ghraib/Iraq, etc…. now believed to be well over 10,000 all told)… and “compromise” on the “fine-sounding language” of actual compliance with the law. As noted, Obama has both a finer understanding and appreciation of the law.

    Still, to me, the ultimate test of the man’s character is that McCain, as noted in the post, “compromised” on the uncompromisable, and let Cheney have his legislative “exception” for our version of the secret police. Compare and contrast Menachim Begin, who, after being tortured by the Soviets as a young man, took on a life-long role against torture, including reigning it in when he was PM of Israel, having understood its horrors first hand. That John McCain, who has dined out for decades on the abuse he suffered as POW in Viet Nam, has now flipped like this just because he was running for President, tells us everything we need to know about him. Quite simply, he sold out the core value of civilization. Period.

    Obama has, at least, voted against the Military Commissions Act, expressly designed to overrule the Hamdan case; his record is not perfect, though few legislators’ are. Unfortunately, not only do most American voters not care about these issues, the “swing” and “undecided” voters really don’t need to hear accusations of Obama being “soft on terror.” It would be nice if Obama could campaign on a broader theme against executive abuse, but far too many Americans either don’t understand these issues, or worse, if they did, might actually prefer the dictatorial regime.

    Under the circumstances, Obama’s present handling of these things will have to do. Unlike McCain, Obama really has nothing invested in GTMO or its companion gulags over the seas, and has every incentive to reengage the rest of the world by doing the right thing and discontinuing these practices.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    I always love to receive comments from my friend the Talking Dog, as he invariably has some wisdom to impart — and often with a cynicism that is so dry that it’s actually on fire.
    This, by comparison, is both mellow and spot-on, but it saddens me that a whole campaign will go by without it being spelled out that, for the last eight years, the White House has been hijacked by a bunch of besuited thugs who believe that the President of the United States — or, as at present, the team pulling the strings in the Vice President’s Office — should actually have dictatorial powers.
    Here’s a largely overlooked reminder of how shameful the whole situation is:

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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