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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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, “U.S. to repatriate Guantánamo detainee to Yemen after judge orders him to be released,” anonymous administration officials told the Washington Post 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 U.S. 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 al-Qaeda.’”
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 U.S. 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 U.S. newspaper that Odaini, a patently innocent man whose release was ordered by a U.S. 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 U.S. 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 trial 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 to key elements of the Bush administration’s program of torture and arbitrary detention, the Obama administration has confirmed its lack of principles.