How Obama Backed Impunity For War Crimes

Andrew Sullivan —  Dec 10 2014 @ 1:41pm

President Obama And Family Arrive In Berlin

Former CIA director Michael Hayden uses the DOJ not bringing charges against any interrogators as evidence of the CIA’s innocence:

John Durham, a special independent prosecutor, over a three-year period investigated every known CIA interaction with every CIA detainee. At the end of that the Obama administration declined any prosecution. [In 2012, the Justice Department announced that its investigation into two interrogation deaths that Durham concluded were suspicious out of the 101 he examined—those of Afghan detainee Gul Rahman and Iraqi detainee Manadel al-Jamadi—would be closed with no charges.] So if A is true how does B get to be true? If the CIA routinely did things they weren’t authorized to do, then why is there no follow-up? I have copies of the DOJ reports they’re using today. The question is, is the DoJ going to open any investigation and the DoJ answer is no. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have all this supposed documentary evidence saying the agency mistreated these prisoners and then Barack Obama’s and Eric Holder’s Department of Justice saying no, you’ve got bupkis here.

This is evidence that Obama’s weakness and vacillation on the question of torture has done great damage. Hayden is using the Obama DOJ’s own white-washing report to minimize the war crimes in the Senate report. One of the ironies in this, of course, is that Hayden has been criticizing the Senate Report’s failure to interview the CIA torturers themselves, even though the Durham investigation legally precluded that for three years. But the Senate Report had an obvious alternative to such interviews: it had the CIA’s own internal documents, its very internal conversations, in which it is perfectly clear that as they were practicing torture, they knew what they were doing could not be described by anyone as “humane”.  These documents alone are more than sufficient proof of the claims made in the report. They are definitive. More to the point, no documents were included from any other source – either to buttress or to contradict the findings. But in the Durham “investigation”, the torturers were interviewed but not the victims – a clearly rigged process designed to exculpate the war criminals.

There should, in my mind, be no debate about prosecutions for war crimes. Seriously, can you imagine the US opposing such prosecutions if they were in a foreign country? Besides, the US’ clear international and domestic legal obligations admit of no exception for the prosecution of those credibly accused of torture – let alone of those, like Cheney, who have openly bragged about it. It specifically bars any exception in the case of national emergency. Not to prosecute because of such an emergency is therefore to end the Geneva Conventions  – which is what Obama has effectively done. He must not be let off the hook for that fateful step – and what it does to the core meaning of the United States.

From now on, the US is a human rights violator of the first order under international law, a rogue state that has explicitly tortured innocent people and never held anyone legally responsible. I know that sounds terribly harsh. But how is it untrue? And to refuse to prosecute war crimes is to condone war crimes. Not burglary or robbery – but the gravest crimes against humanity that we can imagine. The perpetrators walk among us, many still in the CIA, and some holding presidential Medals of Freedom. Whatever absurd self-congratulations about this report, we should be in no doubt that this makes us no better in this respect than some South American junta before the transition to democracy.

And the fact that we are the most powerful country on earth makes this about much more than just us. It casts a dark and long shadow over humanity. It makes torture everywhere more likely, and more pervasive. It legitimizes evil. It removes from us any moral standing when it comes to Americans being tortured by these very same techniques – as they already have been in Syria, and as they will be in the future. When an American prisoner is tortured by an enemy power in the future, we will have no grounds to complain. Can we just face up to that instead of engaging in so much avoidance and denial? We didn’t just break Iraq; we broke the very structure of basic human rights that this country fought two world wars to establish.

Eric Posner thinks it’s “plain that CIA agents who tortured detainees, and higher government officials who authorized torture (up to President Bush), violated the law.” But he argues that convictions would be nearly impossible:

[T]he CIA agents were told by government lawyers that the law permitted them to use waterboarding and other coercive techniques. And they were acting in the arena of national security, under conditions of great uncertainty about the extent of their powers. The Obama administration has used a legal doctrine called the state secrecy privilege to prevent victims of torture from using evidence of torture in civil actions against government officials. If secrecy concerns driven by national security justify constraints on civil actions, then they justify constraints on criminal actions as well.

David Luban agrees that the “cases would be nearly impossible to win and terrible to lose”:

The law requires proof that interrogators intended to inflict severe pain or suffering. But since the Justice Department’s discredited torture memos assured them that the suffering was not “severe,” it would be nearly impossible to prove that interrogators met the legal test of intent.

Attorney General Holder announced in 2012 that a special prosecutor who investigated 101 cases found that “the admissible evidence would not be sufficient” to convict beyond a reasonable doubt. Perhaps he felt that crucial evidence would have disclosed state secrets, or concluded that victim testimony by accused terrorists would never convince an American jury.

The greatest danger of jury trials would be a string of “patriotic acquittals” of defendants who would say they acted to save American lives, which would create terrible pro-torture precedents to haunt us for years.

That’s by far the best argument against doing so, along with much deeper partisan divisions and political polarization. I see the logic of it – but it is based on an acquiescence to and appeasement of evil.

It also means that countless torture victims – even completely innocent ones – are doubly assaulted: not only did these human beings endure unimaginable suffering, but they are now deemed beneath even a modicum of justice. This is why not prosecuting is such a grave decision. In what other context would we ever decide that an individual who tortured an innocent person to death should receive no legal consequences for it? I submit that it would be inconceivable. That such acts are protected if they are committed by those entrusted with all the might of government power and coercion makes this all the more chilling. By not prosecuting, we are creating an incentive for such awful things to be done again. We are empowering the Leviathan to torture prisoners in future knowing it can get away with anything.

Far from ensuring that these awful crimes never happen again, Obama has all but ensured that they will. That will be part of his legacy: the sounds of a torture victim crying in the dark, and knowing that America is fine with it. It is, in that sense, the end of America as much of the world has known it. As someone who has chosen this country because I revere it and love it so, it breaks my heart, and tears incessantly at my soul.