Daniel David Luban, in an address to the National Consortium of Torture Treatment Programs on February 13, examined the Obama administration’s record on accountability for torture. The bleak but undeniable truth:
It would be wrong to say that the Obama Administration did nothing to fight the media blitz of the Friends of Torture. They did that one thing—releasing the torture memos.
But their other steps were all in the wrong direction. The most painful thing to understand is how tenaciously the Obama administration has fought any form of accountability for torture. This, I’m afraid, is a depressing story, but it’s one that needs to be told.
The President gave an early hint in an interview ten days before he took office: ‘I don’t believe that anybody is above the law. On the other hand I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.’ He added that he didn’t want the ‘extraordinarily talented people’ at the CIA, who are ‘working very hard to keep Americans safe,’ to ‘suddenly feel that they’ve got to spend all their time looking over their shoulders and lawyering up.’ Transition team staff explained that they feared a CIA “revolt” if Obama prosecuted Bush-‐era war crimes.
‘Looking forward rather than backward’ became the mantra. Superficially, it sounds like common sense, but a moment’s thought shows how fatuous it is. Would we ever say it about a murderer or a rapist? ‘Let him go – we should be looking forward, not back.’ Of course not.
“In fact, ‘look forward, not back’ sounds more like the pleas of Shakespeare’s arch-‐villain Richard III. In one scene, Richard the Shameless tries to recruit a woman to help him woo her daughter shortly after he has murdered her sons:
Look, what is done cannot now be amended….
Plead what I will be, not what I have been;
Not my deserts, but what I will deserve. (Richard III, Act 4, scene 4)
The plain fact is that law enforcement demands looking back when the law has been grievously violated. Otherwise we might as well have no law at all.