I’ve wondered for quite a while what Barack Obama thinks about torture. We now know a little more:
Even before I came into office I was very clear that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 we did some things that were wrong. We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks. We did some things that were contrary to our values.
I understand why it happened. I think it’s important when we look back to recall how afraid people were after the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon had been hit and the plane in Pennsylvania had fallen, and people did not know whether more attacks were imminent, and there was enormous pressure on our law enforcement and our national security teams to try to deal with this. And it’s important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had. And a lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots.
But having said all that, we did some things that were wrong. And that’s what that report reflects. And that’s the reason why, after I took office, one of the first things I did was to ban some of the extraordinary interrogation techniques that are the subject of that report.
And my hope is, is that this report reminds us once again that the character of our country has to be measured in part not by what we do when things are easy, but what we do when things are hard. And when we engaged in some of these enhanced interrogation techniques, techniques that I believe and I think any fair-minded person would believe were torture, we crossed a line. And that needs to be — that needs to be understood and accepted. And we have to, as a country, take responsibility for that so that, hopefully, we don’t do it again in the future.
What to make of this?
I don’t think it’s that big a deal that he used the English language to describe what was done, in any fair-minded person’s judgment. He’s said that before now. And his general position hasn’t changed. Let me paraphrase: We tortured. It was wrong. Never mind. So he tells the most basic version of the truth – that the US government authorized and conducted war crimes – and hedges it with an important caveat: We must understand the terribly fearful circumstances in which this evil was authorized. But equally, he argues that the caveat does not excuse the crime: “the character of our country has to be measured in part not by what we do when things are easy, but what we do when things are hard.”
This latter point is integral to the laws against torture – but completely guts his first point. As I noted with the UN Convention, the prohibition is absolute:
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.
Cheney, Bush, Tenet, and Rumsfeld all knew this from the get-go. That’s why they got their supine OLC to provide specious justifications for the legally prohibited. That’s why they won’t use the word “torture,” instead inventing an Orwellian euphemism. And, of course, the president’s excuse for them – that “in the immediate aftermath of 9/11,” we did wrong things – is deeply misleading. This went on for years across every theater of combat. What about what Abu Ghraib revealed about the scope of torture in the battlefield much later on? What about 2005 when they secretly re-booted the torture program? This was a carefully orchestrated criminal conspiracy at the heart of the government by people who knew full well they were breaking the law. It cannot be legally or morally excused by any contingency. It cannot be treated as if all we require is an apology they will never provide.
Yet that’s what the president’s acts – as opposed to his words – imply. And that’s what unsettles me. It is not as if the entire country has come to the conclusion that these war crimes must never happen again. The GOP ran a pro-torture candidate in 2012; they may well run a pro-torture candidate in 2016. This evil – which destroys the truth as surely as it destroys the human soul – is still with us. And all Obama recommends for trying to prevent it happening again is a wistful aspiration: “hopefully, we don’t do it again in the future.” Hopefully?
Then there’s the not-so-small matter of the rule of law.
Call me crazy but I do not believe that the executive branch can simply allow heinous crimes to go unpunished just because they were committed … by the executive branch. It seems to me, to paraphrase the president on Friday, that the rule of law “has to be measured in part not by what we do when things are easy, but what we do when things are hard.” How many times does the United States government preach about international law and Western values? On what conceivable grounds can we do so when our own government can commit torture on a grand and brutal scale for years on end – and get away with it completely?
Either the rule of law applies to the CIA or it doesn’t. And it’s now absolutely clear that it doesn’t. The agency can lie to the public; it can spy on the Senate; it can destroy the evidence of its war crimes; it can lie to its superiors about its torture techniques; it can lie about the results of those techniques. No one will ever be held to account. It is inconceivable that the United States would take this permissive position on torture with any other country or regime. Inconceivable. And so the giant and massive hypocrisy of this country on core human rights is now exposed for good and all. The Bush administration set the precedent for the authorization of torture. The Obama administration has set the precedent for its complete impunity.
America has killed the Geneva Conventions just as surely as America made them.
(Photo: a page on enhanced interrogation techniques via a FOIA request.)