Four Things You Need to Know About Barack Obama and U.S. Torture & Detention
May 27, 2009
by the writing team at World Can’t Wait.org
1. Barack Obama did NOT end torture.
Many people think that, upon taking office, Barack Obama ended torture. This is just not true. Under Obama, the U.S has continued to torture prisoners at Guantánamo, where more than 200 detainees are still being held without charge or trial.
According to a February 2009 report by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Guantánamo guards routinely subject detainees to vicious beatings, solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, suffocation, repeated use of tear gas, and the force-feeding of tubes through the nasal passages of hunger strikers. Much of this torture is committed by Guantánamo’s Immediate Reaction Force (IRF) teams, which CCR president Michael Ratner has described as the “black shirts of Guantánamo.”
Quoting from the CCR report: “Detainees are subjected to brutal physical assaults by the Immediate Reaction Force (IRF), a team of military guards comparable to a riot squad, who are trained to respond to alleged ‘disciplinary infractions’ with overwhelming force.” And later in the report: “In Camps 5, 6 and Echo, detainees live in constant fear of physical violence. Frequent attacks by IRF teams heighten this anxiety and reinforce that violence can be inflicted by the guards at any moment for any perceived infraction, or sometimes without provocation or explanation.”
In fact, conditions at Guantánamo have gotten even worse since Obama became president. “Certainly in my experience there have been many, many more reported incidents of abuse since the inauguration,” Ahmed Ghappour, a lawyer representing several Guantánamo detainees, told Reuters in February.1
And, contrary to popular belief and to his own statements, Obama’s executive orders do not ban torture either; they contain several loopholes that allow it to continue. For instance, the order states that interrogation techniques must conform to the Army Field Manual, but Annex M of that manual allows for prolonged solitary confinement and sleep deprivation.The order also established a task force that includes Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Attorney General Eric Holder that is charged with determining whether to implement techniques that go beyond the Army Field Manual. Finally, the order states that prisoners shall be treated humanely, “whenever such individuals are in the custody or under the effective control of an officer, employee, or other agent of the United States Government or detained within a facility owned, operated, or controlled by a department or agency of the United States.”
This raises the obvious question: What about the many instances when the U.S. hands detainees over to other countries–or to prisons run by its puppet governments in Afghanistan and Iraq?
2. Obama’s detention program is even more fascist than Bush’s program.
During the campaign Obama declared habeas corpus to be “the foundation of Anglo-American law.” Habeas corpus is your right to challenge your detention; it’s a right that goes back almost 900 years. Its absence marks a tyranny because without it there are no restraints on a government’s powers to detain and punish. In March 2008, Obama claimed that: “We ultimately provide anybody that we’re detaining an opportunity through habeas corpus to answer to charges.”
Obama’s actions since assuming office, however, have made a mockery of his campaign rhetoric, to say the least. Even before his major speech on May 21, Obama made clear that he was continuing the fundamental aspects of the Bush Regime’s detention program, including: Indefinitely detaining anybody his administration chooses to, without charge or trial; denying habeas corpus to hundreds of prisoners at the Bagram prison in Afghanistan, which is currently undergoing a $60 million expansion; denying habeas corpus to Guantánamo prisoners detained before June 2008; and reinstituting Bush’s military commissions. Obama claimed to be “reforming” the military commissions by preventing the admission of evidence gained through torture, limiting hearsay evidence, and allowing detainees to choose which military lawyer would represent them. This caused Vincent Warren, CCR’s executive director, to comment:
“You know, putting a few due process protections on an old George Bush policy is like rehabbing a house on a toxic waste site. You know, it really didn’t make a whole lot of difference. And you can’t make the military commissions better.”
But in his May 21 speech, Obama went further than even Bush ever did: He announced his intent to implement indefinite preventive detention. In other words, Obama announced that in addition to sending detainees before military commissions, sending still other prisoners off for continued detention in other countries, releasing some detainees, and moving to prosecute others who have already been subjected to a living hell for the past several years, the U.S. will detain people indefinitely, without charge or trial, whom the government claims might commit a crime. Not just people whom the government claims have committed a crime, mind you, but those whom the administration says might commit a crime.
Here is what Obama himself said in his speech, followed by former constitutional lawyer and renowned blogger Glenn Greenwald’s analysis of the speech…
Obama: Now, finally, there remains the question of detainees at Guantánamo who cannot be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger to the American people. And I have to be honest here — this is the toughest single issue that we will face. We’re going to exhaust every avenue that we have to prosecute those at Guantánamo who pose a danger to our country. But even when this process is complete, there may be a number of people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes, in some cases because evidence may be tainted, but who nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States. Examples of that threat include people who’ve received extensive explosives training at al Qaeda training camps, or commanded Taliban troops in battle, or expressed their allegiance to Osama bin Laden, or otherwise made it clear that they want to kill Americans. These are people who, in effect, remain at war with the United States. Let me repeat: I am not going to release individuals who endanger the American people.”
Greenwald: “It’s important to be clear about what ‘preventive detention’ authorizes. It does not merely allow the U.S. Government to imprison people alleged to have committed Terrorist acts yet who are unable to be convicted in a civilian court proceeding. That class is merely a subset, perhaps a small subset, of who the Government can detain. Far more significant, ‘preventive detention’ allows indefinite imprisonment not based on proven crimes or past violations of law, but of those deemed generally ‘dangerous’ by the Government for various reasons (such as, as Obama put it yesterday, they ‘expressed their allegiance to Osama bin Laden’ or ‘otherwise made it clear that they want to kill Americans’) That’s what ‘preventive’ means: imprisoning people because the Government claims they are likely to engage in violent acts in the future because they are alleged to be ‘combatants.’ Once known, the details of the proposal could — and likely will — make this even more extreme by extending the ‘preventive detention’ power beyond a handful of Guantánamo detainees to anyone, anywhere in the world, alleged to be a ‘combatant.'” (Emphasis in original)
By comparison, as Greenwald goes on to point out, the maximum amount of time that people can be held without charge is 24 hours in Canada;48 hours in South Africa, Germany, New Zealand and the U.S.;five days in Russia; and 7 ½ days in Turkey.
And yet, Obama announced he will seek to hold people indefinitely without charge on the basis that they might commit a crime.You could not find a more totalitarian measure in the pages of George Orwell’s “1984.”
Many people breathed a sigh of relief after the president’s speech because Obama promised to consult Congress on his detention policies, and to establish a “legitimate legal framework” for indefinite preventive detention. But establishing a “legitimate legal framework” for an escalation of the Bush Regime’s fascist detention program should not be comforting at all–by seeking to normalize that program, it only makes it all the more dangerous!
People of conscience must once again ask themselves: “Will I accept something under Obama that I never would have accepted under Bush?”
3. Barack Obama is covering-up war crimes and crimes against humanity.
This process has several components to it:
REFUSING TO PROSECUTE WAR CRIMINALS
Let’s put a few simple facts together:
A) Barack Obama has acknowledged on several occasions that the Bush Regime authorized torture. For instance, in January 2009, he told ABC’s George Stephanophoulous, “[Former] Vice President Cheney I think continues to defend what he calls extraordinary measures or procedures when it comes to interrogations and from my view waterboarding is torture.”
B) Bush officials have admitted that the administration, all the way up to George W. Bush himself, authorized torture (they do not call it torture, they call it “enhanced interrogation techniques”). In May 2009, Cheney appeared on “Face the Nation” with Bob Schieffer and said, “This was a presidential-level decision. And the decision went to the president. He signed off on it.”
C) The four torture memos that Obama released in April 2009 prove, in a graphic and incredibly detailed manner, that Bush Regime lawyers Jay Bybee and Steven Bradbury authorized forms of torture including waterboarding, slamming into walls, confinement in boxes, shackling and sleep deprivation for days at a time, and forced nudity.2
D) Under the United Nations Convention Against Torture, all state parties are required to investigate and prosecute torturers. Article 12 states: “Each state party shall ensure that its competent authorities proceed to a prompt and impartial investigation wherever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture has been committed in any territory under its jurisdiction.”
Add all this up, and here’s what you get: Obama is morally and legally required, under international law, to commence investigations and prosecutions of Bush officials for torture. And yet he refuses to do so. This means Obama himself is in violation of international law, and is complicit with the Bush Regime’s crimes against humanity. Furthermore, unless and until Obama enforces laws against torture, he is ensuring it will continue; he is sending a message that those who violate these laws in the future will not be punished.
Imagine a serial killer murders in broad daylight. And imagine if, instead of arresting the killer, the local police department issued a statement saying, “From this day forward, we will not allow murder. But we are not going to prosecute the murderer.” This is what Obama has done by refusing to prosecute the Bush Regime. If the Bush regime can get away with openly violating the law then there is no “rule of law.” Any president can henceforth break the law without any consequences.
BLOCKING ROUGHLY 2000 U.S. TORTURE PHOTOS
As if his refusal to prosecute Bush officials who authorized and carried out torture weren’t bad enough, Obama took another huge step towards covering up the crimes of our government when he announced in May 2009 that he will try to block roughly 2000 photos of U.S. torture from being released. Obama justified this decision by claiming that releasing the photos would only increase anti-American sentiment, and added, “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.”
This is a lie! What actually increases “anti-American sentiment” is not photos of torture; it’s torture itself! Furthermore, Obama knows full well that torture was not carried out by “a small number of individuals,” but rather was applied systematically, on a huge scale, and with approval from the highest levels of the U.S. government. Just to give one example of this fact: In his recent book, “George W. Bush, War Criminal?” Professor Michael Haas reveals that the Bush Regime imprisoned thousands of children in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantánamo, and subjected them to rape, severe physical beatings, solitary confinement, denial of contact with parents for years at a time, and use of dogs.3
The 2000 photos would serve as powerful and irrefutable further proof of the fact that U.S. torture is systematic and widespread, and they would show the true essence of the U.S. wars for empire in the Middle East. It is exactly for these reasons that Obama is trying so hard to block the photos from coming out!
Obama’s decision to block the photos also goes hand in hand with his refusal to prosecute Bush Regime war criminals: Releasing the photos would undoubtedly unleash an even louder demand for prosecutions.
BLOCKING LAWSUITS OF TORTURE VICTIMS
Finally, Obama has continued Bush’s use of the “state secrets” argument to prevent victims of U.S. torture from suing the government. Perhaps most infamously, in February, the Obama administration applied the state secrets argument in the case of Mohamed et al vs. Jeppesen Dataplan Inc. In 2002, Binyam Mohamed–a citizen of Ethiopia and British resident–was arrested in Pakistan, and then sent by the U.S. to Morocco, and then Afghanistan, and then finally to Guantánamo. Mohamed was not released until 2009. During his seven years of detention, he was horrifically tortured.
This torture included having his penis repeatedly cut with a scalpel: “One of them took my penis in his hand and began to make cuts,” Mohamed said, recounting his treatment. “He did it once, and then stood still for maybe a minute, watching my reaction. I was in agony. They must have done this 20 to 30 times, in maybe two hours. There was blood all over. ‘I told you I was going to teach you who’s the man,” [one] eventually said.“4
Mohamed and four other detainees sued Jeppesen Dataplan, a subsidiary of Boeing, for arranging the flights used to transfer them to the various countries in which they were tortured. But in February, the Obama administration continued to argue the same position as the Bush Regime in seeking to block Mohamed’s lawsuit from proceeding: That allowing the case to go forward jeopardized U.S. national security.
In April, an appeals court ruled against the Obama administration and reinstated Mohamed et al vs. Jeppesen Dataplan Inc. But the fact that Obama would seek to protect torturers at the expense of torture victims is both very revealing, and very much in line with his overall continuation and escalation of the Bush Regime’s torture and detention program.
4. Obama is continuing rendition.
During his confirmation hearing, CIA director Leon Panetta made it clear the Obama administration will continue rendition: “Using renditions, we may very well direct individuals to third countries,” Panetta said.
Rendition is the practice of kidnapping somebody in one country and shipping them to another country for detention. On February 5, Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), pointed out: “Rendition is a violation of sovereignty. It’s a kidnapping. It’s force and violence … Once you open the door to rendition, you’re opening the door, essentially, to a lawless world.”
Obama supporters have attempted to draw the distinction between this practice and “extraordinary rendition,” defined as the practice of transferring somebody to another country knowing that they will be tortured.
But who does Panetta view as a source of inspiration when it comes to making sure that people are not tortured? The Bush Regime! During his confirmation hearing, Leon Panetta said that under the Bush administration, “There were efforts by the CIA to seek and to receive assurances that those individuals would not be mistreated.”
Panetta then added, “I will seek the same kind of assurances that those individuals will not be mistreated.”
Hmm. That’s comforting.
The New York Times reported on March 7, 2009:
“Mr. Obama also left open the option for American operatives to capture terrorism suspects abroad even without the cooperation of a country where they were found. ‘There could be situations — and I emphasize ‘could be’ because we haven’t made a determination yet — where, let’s say that we have a well-known Al Qaeda operative that doesn’t surface very often, appears in a third country with whom we don’t have an extradition relationship or would not be willing to prosecute, but we think is a very dangerous person,’ he said.”
The above facts should make abundantly clear that Barack Obama is not only continuing, but seeking to legitimize and consolidate, the Bush Regime’s torture and detention state. If we do not want to live in a country whose government can kidnap anyone they please, imprison them without charge or trial, and torture them–all with impunity–we must immediately and visibly resist torture and the crimes of our government. We must demand prosecutions of all who authorized and carried out torture; release of the torture photos; and an immediate (and actual) end to our government’s fascistic torture and detention program.
1 “Exclusive: Lawyer says Guantánamo abuse worse since Obama,” February 25, 2009, Reuters.com: http://www.reuters.com/article/newsOne/idUSTRE51O3TB20090225?sp=true
2 “RELEASED: The Bush Administration’s Secret Legal Memos,” April, 2009, http://www.aclu.org/safefree/general/olc_memos.html.
3 CONVENTION AGAINST TORTURE and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, http://www.hrweb.org/legal/cat.html