Obama’s Moral Bankruptcy Regarding Torture

Andy Worthington

June 29, 2010

Saturday was the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture,
established twelve years ago to mark the day, in 1987, when the UN
Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading
Punishment or Treatment
came into force, but you wouldn’t have found
out about it through the mainstream US media.

No editorials or news broadcasts
reminded Americans that "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever,
whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political
instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a
justification of torture," and that anyone responsible for authorizing
torture must be prosecuted, and no one called for the prosecution of George W. Bush, Dick
Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld or their supportive colleagues and
co-conspirators, including, for example, John Yoo, Jay S. Bybee and
Stephen Bradbury, the authors of the Office of Legal Counsel’s "torture memos," or other key figures in Cheney’s
"War Council" that drove the policies: David Addington, Cheney’s former
Chief of Staff, Alberto Gonzales, the former Attorney general, and
William J. Haynes II, the Pentagon’s former Chief Counsel.

Instead, two mainstream newspaper
articles revealed the extent to which President Obama has, over the
last 17 months, conspired with senior officials and with Congress to
maintain the bitter fruits of the Bush administration’s torture program —
and its closely related themes of arbitrary detention and hyperbole
about the perceived threat of terrorism.

In the first of these two bleak
stories, "US to repatriate Guantánamo detainee to Yemen after judge
orders him to be released," anonymous administration officials told the Washington
that the President had generously decided to release a
Yemeni prisoner in Guantánamo, Mohammed Hassan Odaini, whose release was
ordered last month by a judge in the District Court in Washington D.C.

As I explained in an article following the judge’s May
26 ruling, it had been publicly known since November 2007 that the
government had conceded in June 2005 that Odaini, a student, had been
seized by mistake after staying the night with friends in a university
guest house in Faisalabad, Pakistan on the night that the house was
raided by Pakistani and US operatives, and that he had been officially
approved for release on June 26, 2006 (ironically, on the International
Day in Support of Victims of Torture).

Nevertheless, the Justice
Department refused to abandon the case against him, and took its feeble
allegations all the way to the District Court, where they were savagely
dismissed by Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. When the judge’s unclassified
opinion was subsequently released, an even grimmer truth
emerged: that shortly after Odaini’s arrival at Guantánamo in June 2002,
an interrogator recommended his repatriation (after he had been
exploited for information about his fellow prisoners), and that, in
April 2004, "an employee of the Criminal Investigative Task Force
(‘CITF’) of the Department of Defense reviewed five interrogations of
Odaini and wrote that ‘[t]here is no information that indicates [he] has
clear ties to mid or high level Taliban or that he is a member of

Odaini was not subjected to
specific torture techniques, but there are many people — myself included
— who are happy to point out to the Obama administration that
subjecting an innocent man to eight years of essentially arbitrary
detention in an experimental prison camp devoted to the coercive
interrogations of prisoners who were deliberately excluded from the
protections of the Geneva Conventions is itself a form of torture,
especially as, unlike the worst convicted criminals on the US mainland,
no Guantánamo prisoner has ever been allowed a family visit, and many
have never even spoken to their families by phone.

Moreover, the fact that the
administration proceeded with his habeas case, despite knowing that he
was innocent, and then refused to release him as soon as the judge
delivered his ruling, confirms that, when it comes to lawlessness and
cruelty, the Obama administration is closer in spirit to the Bush
administration than it cares to admit.

On Saturday, via its anonymous
spokesmen, the administration confirmed how far it has fallen from all
notions of decency. The officials explained that the moratorium on any releases to Yemen that was issued by President Obama in January, in response to
cynical hysteria whipped up in the wake of the failed plane bomb plot
involving a Nigerian who had reportedly trained in Yemen, "remains in
place," but, as one of the officials stated:

The general
suspension is still intact, but this is a court-ordered release. People
were comfortable with this … because of the guy’s background, his family
and where he comes from in Yemen.

In other words, a mouthpiece of
the administration told a major US newspaper that Odaini, a patently
innocent man whose release was ordered by a US judge, and whose ongoing
detention was cynically sought by the Obama administration, was only
being released because government officials were happy about his family
background (his father, it transpires, is a retired security officer).

I shouldn’t really need to
explain to the government that it’s unconstitutional to detain an
innocent man, even if his father happened to be Osama bin Laden rather
than a security officer, nor to point out how it would appear if this
vetting procedure were to be applied to the criminal justice system in
general, but in Obama’s world it is apparently necessary to point out
these basic facts.

The second story that arrived in
time to cast a mocking light on the International Day in Support of
Victims of Torture — "Closing Guantánamo Fades as a Priority" — was
published in the New
York Times
. Since President Obama failed to close Guantánamo by his self-imposed deadline of January 22 this year, the
administration has failed to set a new deadline — and for a depressing
reason, as Sen. Carl Levin explained to the Times.

"There is a lot of inertia"
against closing the prison, "and the administration is not putting a lot
of energy behind their position that I can see," Sen. Levin said,
adding that "the odds are that it will still be open" by the next
presidential inauguration in 2013.

Sen. Levin had no doubt that this
failure had come about because of a lack of political will on the part
of the administration, which contrasts sharply with the rhetoric of
Barack Obama in August 2007, when he was still a Senator. On that
occasion, he spoke compellingly about how, "In the dark halls of
Abu Ghraib and the detention cells of Guantánamo, we have compromised
our most precious values. What could have been a call to a generation
has become an excuse for unchecked presidential power." However, since
coming to power, as Sen. Levin explained, the administration has been
"unwilling to make a serious effort to exert its influence."

With a sharp eye for how
principled rhetoric has not been followed up with any attempt whatsoever
to persuade Congress of the importance of closing Guantánamo, Sen.
Levin contrasted the administration’s "muted response to legislative
hurdles to closing Guantánamo with ‘very vocal’ threats to veto
financing for a fighter jet engine it opposes," and added that last year
the administration "stood aside as lawmakers restricted the transfer of
detainees into the United States except for prosecution," and also responded with silence just a month ago, when the
House and Senate Armed Services Committees voted to block money for renovating a prison in Illinois to take the
remaining prisoners in Guantánamo who have not been cleared for release.

"They are not really putting
their shoulder to the wheel on this issue," Sen. Levin concluded,
adding, "It’s pretty dormant in terms of their public positions."

"Dormant" is a good word, but
something like "extinct" may be more appropriate, if, as Sen. Levin
asserts, Guantánamo will still be open in January 2013. If that occurs,
Guantánamo will have been open for 11 years, which doesn’t even bear
thinking about. This is especially true because, as it stands now,
nearly eight and half years after Guantánamo opened, the Obama
administration’s refusal to take leadership on the issue, to drop its
unacceptable moratorium on releasing Yemenis cleared by its own Task
Force (and in some cases, like Mohammed Hassan Odaini, by the courts),
and to abandon an unprincipled policy of continuing to hold men indefinitely without charge or
demonstrates that senior officials, including the President,
genuinely have no interest in bringing to an end a regime founded on
torture and arbitrary detention. In most respects, their actions — or
their inactivity — represent a ringing endorsement of their
predecessors’ vile policies.

The "enhanced interrogation
techniques" of the Bush years may have come to an end, but anyone
doubting the baleful effects of long-term detention without charge or
trial should recall what Christophe Girod of the International Committee
of the Red Cross told the New
York Times
over six year and a half years ago: "The
open-endedness of the situation and its impact on the mental health of
the population has become a major problem."

That was in October 2003, and I
dread to think what the mental state of some of those prisoners must be
by now. The very thought that, two and half years from now, some of
these men might still be held because the Obama administration doesn’t
care enough to do anything about it cannot be excused for reasons of
political expediency. Instead, it confirms that, in failing to bring to
an end key elements of the Bush administration’s program of torture and
arbitrary detention, the Obama administration has lost its principles.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774
Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison
(published by Pluto
Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon —
click on the following for the US
and the UK)
and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new
articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed
(and I can also be found on Facebook
and Twitter).
Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in
January 2010, details about the new documentary film, "Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo"
(co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here),
and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you
appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on the
website of the Future
of Freedom Foundation

For an overview of all the habeas
rulings, including links to all my articles, and to the judges’
unclassified opinions, see: Guantánamo Habeas Results: The Definitive List.
Also see the archive of articles about Guantánamo and habeas corpus here. For articles about US torture, see the links
following the article here, here and here, and the archive of articles here. For chronological lists of all my articles,
with links, see here.


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