In yet another confirmation that the Obama administration’s handling of counterterrorism policy is nothing but a continuation and, in fact, reinforcement of Bush-era policies, the US Department of Justice decided on Thursday that all cases against (former) low-level CIA and military employees suspected of having employed torture, sometimes leading to murder, are to be dropped, except two.
So there’s not gonna be any accountability for the breaches of human rights and the Geneva Conventions conducted under the last administration in the name of the ‘War on Terror’.
Back in August 2009, the Obama White House already decided that there would be no torture investigations regarding former administration officials (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld) and government lawyers (John Yoo, Jay Bybee) who invented and implemented the ‘legal’ architecture for things like indefinite detention, military commissions and ‘enhanced interrogation methods’ (torture), which eventually spread from Guantánamo Bay and the secret ‘black sites’ to Abu Ghraib and Afghanistan. Neither would there be investigations regarding CIA and military employees who stayed ‘within the lines’ of the new torture regime (even though a lot of people, including JAG lawyers, protested at that time).
The only exception to this immunity granted by Obama would be for those employees who went beyond even what was permitted by the Bush administration in terms of torture. And of those 101 cases, all are now dropped except two.
Those two cases are the most gruesome imaginable: one is of a detainee who froze to death in an American secret prison in 2002 after being stripped and chained to the floor, and the other is of the Abu Ghraib detainee who was photographed in 2003 with a guard holding her thumbs up. All other horrors perpetrated under the Bush administration will now be fully, legally protected.
Change we can believe in. And what’s more: except for one executive order ordering a halt to ’enhanced interrogation methods’, there’s nothing that can prevent a future president from starting to employ torture again…
Consider what’s being permanently shielded from legal accountability. The Bush torture regime extended to numerous prisons around the world, in which tens of thousands of mostly Muslim men were indefinitely imprisoned without a whiff of due process, and included a network of secret prisons – ”black sites” — purposely placed beyond the monitoring reach of even international human rights groups, such as the International Red Cross.
Over 100 detainees died during U.S. interrogations, dozens due directly to interrogation abuse. Gen. Barry McCaffrey said: ”We tortured people unmercifully. We probably murdered dozens of them during the course of that, both the armed forces and the C.I.A.” Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who oversaw the official investigation into detainee abuse, wrote: ”there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”
Thanks to the Obama DOJ, that is no longer in question. The answer is resoundingly clear: American war criminals, responsible for some of the most shameful and inexcusable crimes in the nation’s history — the systematic, deliberate legalization of a worldwide torture regime — will be fully immunized for those crimes. And, of course, the Obama administration has spent years just as aggressively shielding those war criminals from all other forms of accountability beyond the criminal realm: invoking secrecy and immunity doctrines to prevent their victims from imposing civil liability, exploiting their party’s control of Congress to suppress formal inquiries, and pressuring and coercing other nations not to investigate their own citizens’ torture at American hands.
All of those efforts, culminating in yesterday’s entirely unsurprising announcement, means that the U.S. Government has effectively shielded itself from even minimal accountability for its vast torture crimes of the last decade. Without a doubt, that will be one of the most significant, enduring and consequential legacies of the Obama presidency.
As Glenn Greenwald notes, the Obama administration has blocked all attempts by detainees to sue torture facilitators with its generous use of the state secrets doctrine.
What that means is that the only thing preventing a future Republican president from using torture techniques is a flimsy, reversible executive order from the president himself, because no court has ever made a determination that the interrogation techniques themselves were illegal. Both the new Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and the new CIA chief David Petraeus, both once among the most prominent opponents of torture, have now expressed support for the idea of using coercive interrogations in “limited” circumstances. Torture became an issue of partisan dispute because Republicans rallied to the defense of their former president. What happens if the same thing happens with Obama supporters, and they feel the need to minimize the magnitude of what happened under Bush in order to defend the lack of accountability sought by their president?
The fact that so few people, if any, will face professional, civil or criminal sanction for torture bothers me far less than the possibility of torture itself becoming American policy again. Between the absence of strong legal barriers to torture and the deterrent factor of criminal or civil accountability, that outcome seems quite possible.