Obama reverses position on release of photos of detainee abuse

A month after making public once-classified Justice Department memos detailing the Bush administration’s coercive methods of interrogation, President Obama yesterday chose secrecy over disclosure, saying he would seek to block the court-ordered release of photographs depicting the abuse of detainees held by U.S. authorities abroad.

Obama agreed less than three weeks ago not to oppose the photos’ release but changed his mind after viewing some of the images and hearing warnings from his generals in Iraq and Afghanistan that such a move would endanger U.S. troops deployed there.

“The publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals,” Obama said yesterday. “In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in danger.” [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — The ACLU’s executive director, Anthony D. Romero, responded:
“The Obama administration’s adoption of the stonewalling tactics and opaque policies of the Bush administration flies in the face of the president’s stated desire to restore the rule of law, to revive our moral standing in the world and to lead a transparent government. This decision is particularly disturbing given the Justice Department’s failure to initiate a criminal investigation of torture crimes under the Bush administration.

“It is true that these photos would be disturbing; the day we are no longer disturbed by such repugnant acts would be a sad one. In America, every fact and document gets known – whether now or years from now. And when these photos do see the light of day, the outrage will focus not only on the commission of torture by the Bush administration but on the Obama administration’s complicity in covering them up. Any outrage related to these photos should be due not to their release but to the very crimes depicted in them. Only by looking squarely in the mirror, acknowledging the crimes of the past and achieving accountability can we move forward and ensure that these atrocities are not repeated.

“If the Obama administration continues down this path, it will betray not only its promises to the American people, but its commitment to this nation’s most fundamental principles. President Obama has said we should turn the page, but we cannot do that until we fully learn how this nation veered down the path of criminality and immorality, who allowed that to happen and whose lives were mutilated as a result. Releasing these photos – as painful as it might be – is a critical step toward that accounting. The American people deserve no less.”

Torture debate dilutes the moral principle

If torture is an absolute wrong, whatever the circumstances, the question of its effectiveness is irrelevant. To hold the debate on those terms threatens to dilute the moral principle.

This leaves the question of why torture should be condemned absolutely, whereas other acts of war, such as bombing, which cause more damage to human life, might be acceptable as inevitable consequences of national defense.

Bombing can, of course, be a war crime if it is used as an act of terror against unarmed people. But military operations that kill or injure civilians often do not automatically qualify as crimes, as long as deliberately inflicting pain or humiliation on a helpless individual — even if he or she is an enemy — is not the aim. In the case of torture, that is the aim, which is why it is different from other acts of war.

A prominent US right-wing commentator recently opined that any attempt to hold the torturers, and their masters in the Bush administration, accountable, would make a mockery “of the efforts of the tough and brave Americans who guard us while we sleep.”

Aside from the fact that torturing people is not the same as combat and requires little bravery, this gets it exactly wrong. After years of torturing people in one of South America’s most savage “dirty wars,” Brazil’s generals decided to stop it because its institutionalized use was undermining the armed forces’ discipline and morale. It was making a mockery of men who should be tough and brave, but instead had become thugs. [continued…]

The hidden hand of Dick Cheney

While the Obama administration has adopted large numbers of policies that directly contradict Cheney’s positions, it would be a mistake to overlook Cheney’s continued influence on the executive branch through the precedents set by the Bush administration. Among the former vice-president’s most important legacies is increased government secrecy. Obama’s Department of Justice continues to rely on an alleged “state secrets” privilege. It has thus tried to block lawsuits by victims who alleged they were kidnapped and tortured by U.S. intelligence even though they were innocent of wrongdoing, on the grounds that such trials would reveal state secrets. The same state secrets doctrine was used by Obama’s DOJ in an attempt to block investigations of Bush-Cheney warrantless wiretaps. Likewise, the DOJ has attempted to block lawsuits seeking the release of Bush-era e-mails and to prevent prisoners held at Bagram air base in Afghanistan from appearing before a judge to challenge their imprisonment. [continued…]

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