At a press conference earlier this month President Obama made some comments about the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s mammoth 6000+-page report on the CIA’s RDI (Rendition, Interrogation and Detention) program post-9/11. He said, “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.” His frank admission that “we tortured” sent shockwaves through the media, with pundits gasping that the President had uttered the ‘t’ word. However, he had done this several times before – recently at a 2013 speech at the National Defense University – so this was hardly a novelty. More bizarre was his use of “folks”, a cosy, casual word which served to banalize and sugar-coat the issue at hand. As if that wasn’t enough, Obama then attempted to make excuses for the CIA, saying we should not be too “sanctimonious” to the torturers, who were “real patriots” doing a “tough job” after the atrocities of 9/11.
In a brilliant piece for the LA Times (“America’s real patriots fought to expose and end torture”), Jameel Jaffer and Larry Siems expose the absurdity of these remarks. They point out that “patriotism isn’t a defense to criminal conduct” and, indeed, neither the US laws prohibiting torture nor the relevant international treaties provide any exemption for “patriots doing a tough job”. But, they write, “The deeper problem with the president’s account is that it consigned to obscurity the true heroes of the story: the courageous men and women throughout the military and intelligence services who kept faith with our values, and who fought to expose and end the torture.” These “true heroes” were FBI agents, like Ali Soufan, who refused to participate in brutal interrogations, CIA agents who complained noisily about the abuses, military lawyers, like Alberto Mora, who rejected the legal rationale behind “enhanced interrogation”, and military prosecutors, like Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, who resigned over the use of evidence gained from torture.
To their list we could add others: Col. Morris Davis, the chief prosecutor at Guantanamo who resigned over political interference in the military commission process, Lt. Col. Stuart Couch, another military prosecutor who refused to participate in a trial because the defendant had been tortured, the decorated military interrogator Matthew Alexander who banned his team from using coercive methods in Iraq, FBI agent Jim Clemente who protested against the abuses he saw at Guantanamo, Philip Zelikow, former adviser to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, who wrote an internal memo suggesting that some of the enhanced techniques were illegal, law enforcement veteran Mark Fallon who resisted the introduction of harsh techniques at Guantanamo, Col. Steven Kleinman, a senior military interrogator who disobeyed a direct order to teach soldiers how to torture prisoners in Iraq, or former CIA agent John Kiriakou who first publicly confirmed that waterboarding was official US government policy (since jailed by the Obama administration for leaking classified information). The list goes on and on. But, for Obama, those who rejected torture and put their careers on the line are ignored or, in Kiriakou’s case, jailed. It’s the torturers who are the “real patriots”.
To hear these words from the mouth of an American president is nothing short of staggering. Let’s remember that Bush always insisted the interrogation program was lawful: it did not amount to torture in the eyes of his administration. So, at least by his logic, CIA agents who brutalized prisoners were acting within the letter of the law. But, for Obama, “enhanced techniques” like waterboarding constitute torture, so they are criminal and unconstitutional. That’s why he banned some – though not all – of those techniques soon after taking office. Now, part of the President’s job – as stated in Article II.3 of the US Constitution – is to ensure the “laws be faithfully executed”. To publicly praise lawbreakers as patriots counts as a remarkable betrayal of this role. Far from upholding the law, he is extolling those who, by his own reasoning, broke it.
This has been his approach since taking office. Despite outlawing the enhanced methods, Obama refused to prosecute any of the Bush torturers, saying repeatedly that we must “look forward, not back”. Moreover, he has rejected and suppressed all other forms of accountability besides criminal prosecution, blocking a bipartisan “truth commission” like the 9/11 inquiry, invoking the state secrets privilege to quash civil litigation, even pressuring foreign governments to drop their investigations into the torture regime. Of course this sits uneasily with his belief that the techniques constitute torture and amount to criminal violations under domestic and international law, while also breaching the US’ treaty obligations as a signatory to the Geneva Conventions and UN Convention Against Torture, which require that all state parties prosecute credible allegations of torture. It does explain, though, why he made excuses for the torturers at his press conference: yes, they “tortured”, but they were “real patriots”, so let’s cut them some slack and move on.
Obama wants to have it both ways: to admit to torturing prisoners, while protecting the torturers from liability; to gratify his liberal supporters, while placating the national security state; to utter sweet words about “change”, while preserving the status quo. In this warped, paradoxical world, criminals do a “tough job” and torturers become “patriots”. Such is the logic of the Nobel Peace Prize recipient and constitutional law professor, Obama. And they say Bush was the crazy one?
I want to flag two splendid articles not linked into the text above. Ryan Cooper at The Week penned a blistering attack on Obama’s torture stance, describing torture as “an absolute evil” that “only a complete idiot” would use to gather intelligence. And Falguni Sheth at Salon took issue with Obama’s notion that “we” tortured, when so many Americans (such as the individuals mentioned in my post) never endorsed torture in the first place.