Obama And Torture: Another Win For The CIA?

Obama Departs The White House En Route To New York

There have been posts I’ve written over the past decade and a half on this blog that have left me with a very heavy heart. Absorbing the full meaning of what was revealed at Abu Ghraib was one; reflecting on the horrifying child-abuse in the Catholic church was another; reacting to president Bush’s endorsement of a Federal Marriage Amendment or president Obama’s half-assed decision to re-fight the Iraq War one more time were not exactly easy posts to compose. I confess I find it hard to write dispassionately about these kinds of things. The abuse of children; the torture of prisoners; the madness of permanent warfare; and the citizenship and dignity of gay people: these are first order questions for me. I understand, as we all must, that politics is an inherently flawed, imperfect, deeply human and always compromised activity. But some things are not really open to compromise. And torture is one of them.

The mounting evidence that president Obama’s long game may well mean the entrenchment and legitimization of torture and abuse of prisoners is a deeply painful thing to report on. He’ll say otherwise; they’ll reach out and insist otherwise. But the record, alas, is getting clearer by the day. We have seen Obama’s rock-solid support for John Brennan’s campaign to prevent any accountability, even to the point of spying on the Senate Committee tasked with oversight, across his two terms. We have watched as the White House has refused to open up its own records for inspection, as it has allowed the CIA to obstruct, slow-walk and try to redact to meaninglessness the Senate Intelligence Committee’s still-stymied report on torture. Our jaws have dropped as the president has reduced one of the gravest crimes on the statute book to “we tortured some folks,” while doing lots of “good things” as well.

Now for the moment when the stomach lurches. The Obama administration is actually now debating whether the legal ban on torture by the CIA in black sites and brigs and gulags outside this country’s borders should be explicitly endorsed by the administration in its looming presentation before the UN’s Committee Against Torture (which might well be an interesting session, given the administration’s consistent refusal to enforce the Geneva Conventions).

One has to ask a simple question: what on earth is there to debate? Torture as well as cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment has already been banned by the executive order of the president, and it is not bound by any geographical limits. Here, moreover, is the text of the Detainee Treatment Act, pioneered by torture victim John McCain, making it even more explicit:

(a) No individual in the custody or under the physical control of the United States Government, regardless of nationality or physical location, shall be subject to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

(b) Construction. Nothing in this section shall be construed to impose any geographical limitation on the applicability of the prohibition against cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment under this section.

Well: here is the explanation, as given by Charlie Savage in the NYT yesterday:

Military and intelligence lawyers are said to oppose accepting that the treaty imposes legal obligations on the United States’ actions abroad. They say they need more time to study whether it would have operational impacts. They have also raised concerns that current or future wartime detainees abroad might invoke the treaty to sue American officials with claims of torture, although courts have repeatedly thrown out lawsuits brought by detainees held as terrorism suspects.

The CIA’s lawyers want more time to study whether banning torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of prisoners in line with the law and Obama’s executive order would have “operational impacts”. But how could it when torture and mistreatment are hereby forever banned? Doesn’t it imply that the CIA still sees an option for restoring torture in the future, especially if a pro-torture Republican wins the presidency?

A strong case for this interpretation can be read here in a post by David Luban. It’s essential, if complex, legal reading for anyone concerned that Obama, by taking the CIA’s side in this debate and promoting and exonerating those implicated in past torture, has actually left open the real possibility of this darkness descending again.

Savage has tweeted in response that “operational impacts” could merely refer to conditions of confinement, or force-feeding, rather than to torture and abuse more broadly understood. But the question is still vague – and we know enough about the appalling record of the CIA in this matter to suspect that even the tiniest loophole in the anti-torture regime – like those dutifully carved by Yoo, Bybee et al. – can lead to more war crimes, whose very existence can be suppressed.

You can see the inherent danger here:

Bernadette Meehan, a National Security Council spokeswoman, said Mr. Obama’s opposition to torture and cruel interrogations anywhere in the world was clear, separate from the legal question of whether the United Nations treaty applies to American behavior overseas.

Say what? Is she really saying that all that matters is that Obama personally opposes torture, regardless of whether the law says so or not? Does the administration think we’re that easily placated? Does the president think that another empty rhetorical gesture to his base will suffice – even though his administration intends to be mealy-mouthed about torture in front of the UN Committee and leave a gaping loophole for the next president to exploit?

Presidents come and go; Congressional majorities go back and forth; but the CIA remains. Because this administration never even considered enforcing the Geneva Conventions on the US – by refusing to investigate and prosecute acts of torture and abuse by government officials under the previous administration – the CIA knows it can get away with war crimes in plain sight. Emboldened by that knowledge, and eager to prove that its previous actions were completely legit, it seeks now to find ways to cover up the record, and get the Obama administration to endorse a loophole for the perpetuation of torture, thus cementing a bipartisan protection of war criminals and of war crimes and prisoner abuse. It does all this for the future: so that it will never be held accountable by any body, domestic or international, and so that it can torture and abuse again, if it decides it’s in the country’s best interests. And only it will make that decision. We know by now it needs no other sanction – just some legal shenanigans to cover its own ass.

So we have a true test of what this president is made of, as the administration preps for its first appearance before the UN Committee. Is this president serious about torture? Or is he a pawn, like so many before him, of a rogue agency that is accountable to no one?

(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)