Obama’s Moral Bankruptcy Regarding Torture


Saturday was the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, established twelve years ago to mark the day, in 1987, when the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Punishment or Treatment came into force, but you wouldn’t have found out about it through the mainstream US media.

No editorials or news broadcasts reminded Americans that “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture,” and that anyone responsible for authorizing torture must be prosecuted, and no one called for the prosecution of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld or their supportive colleagues and co-conspirators, including, for example, John Yoo, Jay S. Bybee and Stephen Bradbury, the authors of the Office of Legal Counsel’s “torture memos,” or other key figures in Cheney’s “War Council” that drove the policies: David Addington, Cheney’s former Chief of Staff, Alberto Gonzales, the former Attorney general, and William J. Haynes II, the Pentagon’s former Chief Counsel.

Instead, two mainstream newspaper articles revealed the extent to which President Obama has, over the last 17 months, conspired with senior officials and with Congress to maintain the bitter fruits of the Bush administration’s torture program — and its closely related themes of arbitrary detention and hyperbole about the perceived threat of terrorism.

In the first of these two bleak stories, “US to repatriate Guantánamo detainee to Yemen after judge orders him to be released,” anonymous administration officials told the Washington Post that the President had generously decided to release a Yemeni prisoner in Guantánamo, Mohammed Hassan Odaini, whose release was ordered last month by a judge in the District Court in Washington D.C.

As I explained in an article following the judge’s May 26 ruling, it had been publicly known since November 2007 that the government had conceded in June 2005 that Odaini, a student, had been seized by mistake after staying the night with friends in a university guest house in Faisalabad, Pakistan on the night that the house was raided by Pakistani and US operatives, and that he had been officially approved for release on June 26, 2006 (ironically, on the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture).

Nevertheless, the Justice Department refused to abandon the case against him, and took its feeble allegations all the way to the District Court, where they were savagely dismissed by Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. When the judge’s unclassified opinion was subsequently released, an even grimmer truth emerged: that shortly after Odaini’s arrival at Guantánamo in June 2002, an interrogator recommended his repatriation (after he had been exploited for information about his fellow prisoners), and that, in April 2004, “an employee of the Criminal Investigative Task Force (‘CITF’) of the Department of Defense reviewed five interrogations of Odaini and wrote that ‘[t]here is no information that indicates [he] has clear ties to mid or high level Taliban or that he is a member of al-Qaeda.’”

Odaini was not subjected to specific torture techniques, but there are many people — myself included — who are happy to point out to the Obama administration that subjecting an innocent man to eight years of essentially arbitrary detention in an experimental prison camp devoted to the coercive interrogations of prisoners who were deliberately excluded from the protections of the Geneva Conventions is itself a form of torture, especially as, unlike the worst convicted criminals on the US mainland, no Guantánamo prisoner has ever been allowed a family visit, and many have never even spoken to their families by phone.

Moreover, the fact that the administration proceeded with his habeas case, despite knowing that he was innocent, and then refused to release him as soon as the judge delivered his ruling, confirms that, when it comes to lawlessness and cruelty, the Obama administration is closer in spirit to the Bush administration than it cares to admit.

On Saturday, via its anonymous spokesmen, the administration confirmed how far it has fallen from all notions of decency. The officials explained that the moratorium on any releases to Yemen that was issued by President Obama in January, in response to cynical hysteria whipped up in the wake of the failed plane bomb plot involving a Nigerian who had reportedly trained in Yemen, “remains in place,” but, as one of the officials stated:

The general suspension is still intact, but this is a court-ordered release. People were comfortable with this … because of the guy’s background, his family and where he comes from in Yemen.

In other words, a mouthpiece of the administration told a major US newspaper that Odaini, a patently innocent man whose release was ordered by a US judge, and whose ongoing detention was cynically sought by the Obama administration, was only being released because government officials were happy about his family background (his father, it transpires, is a retired security officer).

I shouldn’t really need to explain to the government that it’s unconstitutional to detain an innocent man, even if his father happened to be Osama bin Laden rather than a security officer, nor to point out how it would appear if this vetting procedure were to be applied to the criminal justice system in general, but in Obama’s world it is apparently necessary to point out these basic facts.

The second story that arrived in time to cast a mocking light on the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture — “Closing Guantánamo Fades as a Priority” — was published in the New York Times. Since President Obama failed to close Guantánamo by his self-imposed deadline of January 22 this year, the administration has failed to set a new deadline — and for a depressing reason, as Sen. Carl Levin explained to the Times.

“There is a lot of inertia” against closing the prison, “and the administration is not putting a lot of energy behind their position that I can see,” Sen. Levin said, adding that “the odds are that it will still be open” by the next presidential inauguration in 2013.

Sen. Levin had no doubt that this failure had come about because of a lack of political will on the part of the administration, which contrasts sharply with the rhetoric of Barack Obama in August 2007, when he was still a Senator. On that occasion, he spoke compellingly about how, “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.” However, since coming to power, as Sen. Levin explained, the administration has been “unwilling to make a serious effort to exert its influence.”

With a sharp eye for how principled rhetoric has not been followed up with any attempt whatsoever to persuade Congress of the importance of closing Guantánamo, Sen. Levin contrasted the administration’s “muted response to legislative hurdles to closing Guantánamo with ‘very vocal’ threats to veto financing for a fighter jet engine it opposes,” and added that last year the administration “stood aside as lawmakers restricted the transfer of detainees into the United States except for prosecution,” and also responded with silence just a month ago, when the House and Senate Armed Services Committees voted to block money for renovating a prison in Illinois to take the remaining prisoners in Guantánamo who have not been cleared for release.

“They are not really putting their shoulder to the wheel on this issue,” Sen. Levin concluded, adding, “It’s pretty dormant in terms of their public positions.”

“Dormant” is a good word, but something like “extinct” may be more appropriate, if, as Sen. Levin asserts, Guantánamo will still be open in January 2013. If that occurs, Guantánamo will have been open for 11 years, which doesn’t even bear thinking about. This is especially true because, as it stands now, nearly eight and half years after Guantánamo opened, the Obama administration’s refusal to take leadership on the issue, to drop its unacceptable moratorium on releasing Yemenis cleared by its own Task Force (and in some cases, like Mohammed Hassan Odaini, by the courts), and to abandon an unprincipled policy of continuing to hold men indefinitely without charge or trial demonstrates that senior officials, including the President, genuinely have no interest in bringing to an end a regime founded on torture and arbitrary detention. In most respects, their actions — or their inactivity — represent a ringing endorsement of their predecessors’ vile policies.

The “enhanced interrogation techniques” of the Bush years may have come to an end, but anyone doubting the baleful effects of long-term detention without charge or trial should recall what Christophe Girod of the International Committee of the Red Cross told the New York Times over six year and a half years ago: “The open-endedness of the situation and its impact on the mental health of the population has become a major problem.”

That was in October 2003, and I dread to think what the mental state of some of those prisoners must be by now. The very thought that, two and half years from now, some of these men might still be held because the Obama administration doesn’t care enough to do anything about it cannot be excused for reasons of political expediency. Instead, it confirms that, in failing to bring to an end key elements of the Bush administration’s program of torture and arbitrary detention, the Obama administration has lost its principles.

Andy Worthington 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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation. Cross-posted on Aletho News, Eurasia Review, New Left Project, Another World is Possible, United Progressives and The World Can’t Wait.

For an overview of all the habeas rulings, including links to all my articles, and to the judges’ unclassified opinions, see: Guantánamo Habeas Results: The Definitive List. Also see the archive of articles about Guantánamo and habeas corpus here. For articles about US torture, see the links following the article here, here and here, and the archive of articles here. For chronological lists of all my articles, with links, see here.

5 Responses

  1. Frances Madeson says...

    I’ve printed two copies of this post and am mailing them today to Sasha and Malia Obama. Maybe from the mouths of babes…

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, Frances. That’s very enterprising of you.

  3. Torture Cover Up Disguised As Torture Inquiry » Ten Percent says...

    […] not forgetting first we checked it was all ok with Washington (no possible conflicts there… Obama’s Moral Bankruptcy Regarding Torture, oh) Cameron is understood to have discussed the issue in recent days with President Obama, but no […]

  4. Tristan says...

    Thanks for the update. What happened to Obama?

  5. Jeffrey Kaye says...

    Excellent essay, Andy. The silence appears to have extended to the blog-world as well. It’s amazing how much the obeisance to Obama and the Democrats have blunted political consciousness (though left-wing theory would have predicted it).

    I don’t want you to think it totally went unremarked. I used the occasion to note many of the same points you made (though my writing is not your equal) at Firedoglake last Saturday.


    From the article:

    The U.S. is formally a signatory to CAT [Convention Against Torture], but from the day it was ratified by the U.S. Senate, the treaty was eviscerated by a number of “reservations, declarations, and understandings”, which legalisms were meant to shield the United States from actions that any reasonable person would understand constitute torture or cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment of prisoners. Still, the CAT remained a formidable obstacle to the Bush/Cheney lawyers, when they were drawing up their memorandum to allow torture. Yoo, Bybee and Bradbury made sure they addressed legal problems for the administration faced by the treaty the U.S. signed, and turned rhetorical and forensic somersaults to make sure that no one would charge U.S. actors for the crimes of torture.

    Meanwhile, the administration of Barack Obama has made a fetish of the idea that U.S. society must not “look backward,” and refuses to promote the necessary investigations and prosecutions of the crimes undertaken by the Bush/Cheney administration — and this is true even after recent revelations indicate that besides torture, illegal human experimentation on prisoners also occurred. Even worse, there is plenty of evidence to now indicate the Obama administration has itself embraced the policies of rendition, secret prisons, assassination, and abuse of prisoners.

    Nor has Congress acquitted itself especially well….

    {I think you get the idea…}

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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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