Obama reserves the right to use torture

Eric Lewis writes: As a candidate in 2008, President Obama stated categorically, “We’ll reject torture — without exception or equivocation.” During his first month in office, he made good on his pledge, signing an executive order prohibiting torture or inhumane treatment. There is no reason to doubt that the order has been followed. This was a huge step forward for the United States.

But if he loses the presidency next year, Obama’s failure to deal with the legacy of torture that he inherited may turn out to be a huge problem. He has left the door open for state-sanctioned torture to be part of the next administration’s tool kit for dealing with the “global war on terror.” The leading Republican candidates understand that in many circles advocating torture is good politics. In their debates and in their foreign policy pronouncements, they are effectively capitalizing on a series of decisions that the Obama administration made as it failed to enshrine its own ban on torture as an absolute legal norm. Torture remains on the table as a future policy choice.

So what happened? The president has rejected three clear opportunities to erect a high legal wall against the return of torture: he has made it clear that criminal prosecutions for torture will not go forward; he has opposed the creation of a truth commission to examine events comprehensively; and he has affirmatively intervened to stop civil litigation by detainees against their torturers.

When President Obama took office, I was in the midst of litigating a civil case against former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the military chain of command for torture. A panel of judges from the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit had found that as “aliens without presence or property in the United States,” Guantánamo detainees had no right not to be tortured under the Constitution and, in any event, even if there were such rights, there was no reason that Rumsfeld and other military leaders should have been aware that the right to be free from torture was “clearly established.” Accordingly they were immune from suit. In 2009, the Supreme Court directed that the Court of Appeals reconsider its decision in light of its recent finding in Boumediene v. Bush of a constitutional right to habeas corpus for detainees at Guantánamo.

Surely, I thought, the new administration would weigh in and support the argument that there was an inarguable and fundamental right not to be tortured by the government of the United States. What’s more, supporting civil actions for damages would have allowed the facts of torture to emerge through judicial proceedings, avoiding the political conflict of direct executive involvement.

Instead, the Obama administration slammed the door on constitutional challenges to torture. It reiterated the Bush administration’s position, arguing that “aliens held at Guantánamo do not have due process rights,” limiting the Supreme Court’s decision in Boumediene to habeas corpus only. In other words, it was the position of the Obama administration that even though the Supreme Court had found a constitutional right for detainees to challenge their confinement, detainees had no constitutional right not to be tortured while in confinement. The Obama administration also insisted that it was not sufficiently clear that the Constitution prohibited torture of aliens, and so “a reasonable officer would not have concluded that plaintiffs here possessed Fifth and Eighth Amendment rights while they were detained at Guantánamo.”

Yet reasonable officers have known since the founding of the republic that military law prohibits torturing prisoners and, since the 1930s, that it was cruel and unusual punishment and a violation of due process to torture prisoners in the custody of the United States. What these officers apparently could not have been expected to figure out was whether by bringing prisoners to Guantánamo, they could evade the Constitutional ban on torture or prisoners. Finally, the Obama administration warned that civil remedies for torture would “enmesh the courts in military, national security, and foreign affairs matters that are the exclusive province of the political branches.” In plain English, it is up to us — the executive — and not you — the courts — to decide whether detainees can be tortured or not.

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