Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Torture Memos and Accountability

As I posted last week, President Obama made the decision to release four of the torture memos that were written during the Bush Administration. Obama's decision to do so came as he was being strongly pressured from CIA officials, including former CIA Director Michael Hayden, to keep these documents secret. In releasing these memos it has given the public a glimpse into the rules that the Bush Administration felt legally comfortable in operating under during the so-called "War on Terror".

I will make my assessment fairly brief as much has already been stated and since this conversation is far from over. I spent the weekend reading these four memos and have found them nauseating and disturbing. It is simply astounding to read the lengths that Jay Bybee and Stephen Bradbury go to in these memos to justify policies like sleep deprivation, walling (slamming a detainee against a wall), stress positions, dietary manipulation, and waterboarding. I had to remind myself that I was reading memos that shaped American policy and not the policy of some brutal dictator in a far-away land.

These memos outline the reality that played out during the Bush Administration and what was deemed acceptable during the last eight years. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones:

Reading the OLC torture memos is enough to make you ill. The techniques in question are plainly and instinctively abhorrent by any common sense definition, and the authors of the memos obviously know it. But somehow they have to conclude otherwise, so they write page after mind-numbing page of sterile legal language designed to justify authorizing it anyway. It's not torture if the victim survives it intact. It's not against the law if it takes place outside the United States. Waterboarding is OK as long as it isn't performed more than twice in a 24-hour period. Sleep deprivation of shackled prisoners for seven days at a time is permissible as long as the victim's diaper is changed frequently. And on and on and on.

There is no denying that the United States is a nation that wanted to torture, did so on a regular basis, and tried to legally justify treating detainees in ways that would be condemned if the proverbial "shoe were on the other foot". This is not up for dispute. What is also no longer up for dispute is that the Bush Administration felt that these memos gave them enough legal cover to consistently claim that the United States "does not torture" all while feeling justified in the waterboarding of Khalid Sheik Mohammad 183 times in one month.

Despite all of these ugly revelations about our country over the last eight years, we still have commentators, talk show hosts, and a former Vice President who still stand by these tactics and are angry at the Obama Administration for discontinuing their use. These torture apologists not only try to make locking someone in a box with an insect into a political issue, but will continue to make excuse upon excuse for why this type of behavior is acceptable and necessary. For those who implemented these policies which have resulted in the torture and deaths of countless detainees, it is absolutely necessary to establish a special prosecutor to pursue charges of war crimes.

I have expressed concern in Obama's continued language of the need to "move forward" and his viewpoint that "retribution" is not the answer, but with so many conflicting statements coming out of the Administration over the last few days regarding prosecutions, a debate is more than likely happening behind closed doors. If Obama's language is intended to distance himself from the legal process, then an argument can be made that this action is justifiable. After all, bringing charges against former Administration officials should rest with the Attorney General. What is not justifiable is inaction. In order to uphold the laws of the land and to show that we are a nation of laws, there is no other option but to hold fierce and probing investigations into the Bush Administration's use and justification of torture. If these high crimes go unpunished, it undermines the very principles upon which this country stands. It is not simply enough to move on. Scott Horton:

Can anyone be surprised to learn that the new guardians of these vast and unchecked powers, while piously promising to reform and stop breaking the law, also feel that there is no really compelling reason to enforce the law–in the process breaking the oaths they just took a few weeks ago to uphold that very law? Is it not indeed amazing that these claims can be made on the public stage without being greeted with the peals of derision they deserve? Now comes the test of our democracy–will we close the door and walk away, or demand to know what’s been done in our name and hold those who guided any abuses to account for their misconduct? President Obama tells us there’s nothing to see here, just move along. But this will be a test of whether we have a citizenry worthy of that name.

I will continue to bring more opinions on this issue as we move forward.

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