From President Barack Obama’s inauguration to now, he has treated the issue of torture and the legalization of this supreme violation of human rights as an inconvenience. Obama has kept the possibility of holding former Bush Administration officials accountable for torture shrouded in remarks that contain platitudes on nobody being above the rule of law, yet, in those same remarks, he has shifted the responsibility to people like Attorney General Eric J. Holder to prosecute Bush officials, effectively freeing him of any obligation or liability that might stem from having to launch an investigation.
A new report from Human Rights Watch, “Getting Away with Torture: The Bush Administration and Mistreatment of Detainees,” provides opportunity to reflect on the reality that Bush Administration officials committed and effectively legalized torture and the Obama Administration, in its failure to hold these officials accountable, has in a way decriminalized torture.
As a number of news organizations and blogs have noted, the critical thing about the report is that it appears to give up on any possibility of a thorough investigation being launched by the Obama Administration. It encourages “judicial systems in foreign states to pursue investigations” and prosecute “under the doctrines of ‘universal jurisdiction’ and ‘passive personality’ jurisdiction. Under the principle of international that states have an interest in bringing to justice “perpetrators of particular crimes of international concern.” And, it notes that under the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which the US has ratified, “grave breaches” including “willful killing; torture or inhuman treatment; willfully causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or health; and willfully depriving a prisoner of war or other protected person of the rights of fair and regular trial” puts an obligation on countries that have signed to search for those alleged to have committed “grave breaches” and even push for extradition of officials suspected of violations.
While urging foreign countries to prosecute may show human rights groups are desperate, that human rights groups are now pursuing this as an option says a lot about America’s contempt for the rule of law. Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch explained on Democracy Now! torture is the “intentional infliction of severe pain and suffering, whether physical or mental.” Mock executions, like waterboarding, have been prosecuted by the US previously. But, the political class and establishment lawyers argue that prosecuting violations under the law will “politicize criminal law.” Or, they display as much interest in addressing the misconduct as those who know the war in Libya is a downright illegal war.
Those who were opposed to Bush Administration policies of torture, like human rights groups and lawyers, have been understandably disappointed with the Obama Administration. It has failed to close Guantanamo, indicated support for indefinite detention of terror suspects without a trial, bowed to the rancor of neoconservatives and decided to prosecute terror suspects with military commissions, refused to release “torture photos” and chosen to not charge any former CIA officials with the destruction of interrogation tapes.
Human rights groups have been very patient with the administration. Not only has the Obama Administration failed to uphold its duty to investigate and prosecute Bush officials under signed treaties like the Convention against Torture but it has let Bush officials tour around with their memoirs—books which contain prideful admissions of torture.
When Osama bin Laden was killed in a targeted operation, the administration put up with people like former Vice President Dick Cheney, who suggested torture had likely helped the Obama Administration kill him. And, with the news that the Justice Department was dropping ninety-nine of the one hundred and one cases against the CIA for abuse and torture, Bush officials were effectively absolved of any real threat of prosecution from the Obama Administration.
Jeff Kaye draws attention to how the “fight for transparency” makes this renewed push for prosecutions important. Kaye highlights how the Department of Defense is now considering a new policy for unclassified information that would enable less openness and more secrecy. This proposal is to be expected from an administration that has derailed torture lawsuits by invoking “states secrets” privileges. For example, in Mohamed v. Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc., in a suit brought by five survivors of the CIA’s rendition program, the ACLU reports, the Obama Administration argued against a lower court ruling, claimed the “case could not be litigated without the disclosure of state secrets.”
What’s more striking is how this report further demonstrates the US has no culture of accountability for those in power who do not commit crimes that involve sexual misbehavior. Probe after probe and investigation after investigation can produce pages of evidence that would fill an entire room. Recommendations on what to do and blueprints for moving forward can be drafted. Nobody in Washington wants to be bothered with the business of correcting injustice.
Today, President Obama could call for a criminal investigation into US government detention practices, as recommended in the HRW report. But, in America, those guilty of crimes in the national security establishment are permitted to commit crimes so long as it appears it happened while trying to protect America from terrorism. They can trash people’s civil liberties, torture people and violate treaties that are law and get away with it just like bank executives on Wall Street can get away with collapsing the US economy.
The effect of not investigating and prosecuting torture is not only that laws are violated but that torture becomes normalized. A rot spreads throughout the American population as Americans find power should be granted the benefit of the doubt and be allowed to torture terror suspects. Ignoring the number of people detained by the US, who are innocent and have no relationship to any terror group, they remember the mythology of 9/11 that has been seared into their brain by leaders like President Bush and President Obama, who countlessly retell the story of 9/11 in war speeches, and see no problem dehumanizing people.
Torture legalized as a tool for those carrying out “counterterrorism operations” becomes legitimate for use throughout America. Guards in Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Guantanamo Bay, who tortured detainees, can come home and become guards at prisons like the Pelican Bay prison and torture prisoners by subjecting them to solitary confinement in a prison-within-the-prison called the Security Housing Unit or the SHU. They can get away with using interrogation techniques, which are tantamount to torture, on political prisoners like Bradley Manning, the alleged military whistleblower to WikiLeaks.
As reported yesterday, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez has been restricted from having access to detainees in the US so he can conduct inquiries into torture or inhumane treatment. Mendez reports:
I am assured by the US Government that Mr. Manning’s prison regime and confinement is markedly better than it was when he was in Quantico. However, in addition to obtaining first hand information on my own about his new conditions of confinement, I need to ascertain whether the conditions he was subjected to for several months in Quantico amounted to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. For that, it is imperative that I talk to Mr. Manning under conditions where I can be assured that he is being absolutely candid.
The US Department of Defense has said they would allow Mendez to visit but that he would not be able to have an unmonitored visit, violating “long-standing rules that the UN applies to prison visits.” Mendez reluctantly agreed to a monitored visit, but Manning declined to agree to speaking to Mendez while under close watch by any agents or guards. Now, Mendez concludes the US may no longer wish to allow him to visit detainees in any US prisons if he makes a country visit to the United States.
This prevention of access is not unique to the Obama Administration, as the Bush Administration also put unacceptable conditions on UN visits to Guantanamo Bay. This is part of the “new normal,” an era where officials who commit crimes are shielded from accountability for engaging in warrantless wiretapping, torture, or rendition; state secrets are invoked to prevent transparency; detainees are denied habeas corpus; prisons like Guantanamo and Bagram (along with black prison sites that likely still exist) continue to hold detainees perhaps indefinitely; navy ships hold prisoners that can no longer be sent to Guantanamo because there will be public outrage; the right to target and kill U.S. civilians and bypass due process is asserted; and military commissions or “kangaroo courts” force detainees into Kafkaesque proceedings that make it nearly impossible to not be found guilty.
America purports to have moral authority in the world to push for prosecutions for crimes in Third World countries. It condemns Middle Eastern and African countries (excluding Israel), which do not allow access to their countries for investigations of human rights violations. But, it does not investigate and prosecute its own officials, who are responsible for committing and legalizing torture.
The country appears to care little when it is suggested that what happened under Bush could happen again because all too many fail to see how shopping around for legal arguments to create justification for torture or “enhanced interrogation techniques” was wrong. The idea of moving forward instead of looking backward to hold Bush officials accountable enchants the population. And so, the population presses on without collectively confronting the system that has been put in place over the past ten years.