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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Overnight open thread – Obama Empowers Torturers? UPDATED

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s debilitating trickle down of the credit crunch, or just the sudden retraction of Spring here in the UK, but tonight I’m depressed. Or maybe it’s just this…

“I want to emphasize that these photos that were requested in this case are not particularly sensational, especially when compared to the images we remember from Abu Ghraib,” the president said on the South Lawn of the White House. “But they do represent conduct that didn’t conform with the Army manual.”

I’m looking for grains of comfort here, but failing to find any. As many commentators have pointed out, everyone now knows this abuse has happened. Will more photos inflame public opinion in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq any more than it is now?

Or will it just add to the suspicion that Obama is covering up for his predecessor? As Cenk Uygur puts it

Obama has not just protected the torturers, but empowered them. They now get to claim they tried to protect America and that anyone who tries to show their misdeeds endangers America.

I’m so depressed by this news, and the confirmation of the fact that the Obama administration prevented the UK Government from releasing details of the torture of a British citizen, that I am leaving it to you guys to give me some crumbs of comfort in your overnight open thread.

The only glimmer of hope is the hint of some kind of commission to investigate these crimes at a less militarily pressing time.

“In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would further flame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger. … I fear the publication of these photos may only have a chilling effect on future investigations of detainee abuse,”

Or maybe Obama has just caved in, and the generals and Liz Cheney have got their way?

Anybody got some good news?

UPDATE.Thanks to all of your for giving me some perspective, and explaining how it really feels from your position. There’s not a point you’ve made that I disagree with; but as with all really hard decisions, there’s an internal struggle of the soul between competing claims, like Jacob wrestling with his inner angel.

After some reflection and a night’s sleep, I’m slightly less discomfited. Obama has to struggle with competing roles, and here the CinC has triumphed (perhaps momentarily) over the constitutional lawyer.

I would add only one thing. As a foreigner, from a country which is probably America’s greatest ally, I do worry about this phrase (as Chris and Michelle point out) anything to protect our troops. It’s in danger of becoming weirdly circular. So perhaps torture to protect our troops? I’d prefer the phrase ‘Anything to protect our constitution’ because that is what makes the US endure as a symbol of liberty across the world.


  1. That the real criminal here is Cheney. The last link I provided to the HuffPo article makes a great exposition of Liz and Dick’s frenetic activity over the last few months.

    It was only by torture that Cheney got the (false) intelligence he wanted to hear about an Al Qaeda/Saddam Hussein Link. Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi was the repeatedly tortured in Libya under CIA supervision in the search for some linkage. He apparently committed suicide, but his discredited confession under extreme duress was cited by Colin Powell in the UN.

    I can trace the story of a senior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in these weapons to al Qaeda. Fortunately, this operative is now detained, and he has told his story. I will relate it to you now as he, himself, described it.

    Bob Cesca goes on

    And, as we’re all aware, that UN speech outlined the administration’s entire case for connecting Iraq, al-Qaeda and WMD, and thus the case for war. We now know that one of the chief conclusions in the speech was actually formed from the tortured confessions of a man, al-Libi, who was flogged, buried alive, then forced to confirm the administration’s mushroom cloud fantasy

    So basically you have one crime against humanity spawning a much larger one against hundreds of thousands Iraqis, the prestige of the US, and the lives of its service personnel.

    Something is very rotten here. I thought Obama was the one could begin to draw the poison.  

  2. Michelle

    From all that I have read about this, the commanders on the ground did not want the photos released because they fear more intense lashing out at American troops.  We know that torture was committed.  We have seen pictures of that very same torture.  We also know that the torture didn’t work.  I don’t think that further release of photos is creating a plausible deniability of what happened or that it is part of some cover up by the Obama administration.

    I read a tremendously powerful commentary written by Brandon Friedman of VetVoice on the issue of torture. (It was also posted on HuffPo.)  His commentary has colored my thoughts on torture (which I was against before), but now I feel that I have stronger arguments for my opposition to it.  Our military is trying to change the makeup of both war theaters so that we can extricate our troops quickly.  In order to do that, we have to build support for our troops.  I truly believe that these photos will inspire deeper hatred towards our troops and endanger many more of them, and I am not sure what purpose releasing them would do now.  Again, WE KNOW that we tortured.  We WANT the Iraqis and the Afghanis coming to our side without fear of being tortured.  They know that our new Commander in Chief has said NO TORTURE.  We need to rebuild trust with them rather than reopening the wounds that just won’t seem to heal properly.  

    I think of that cartoon that was done with the image of image of Allah and the remarkable backlash that ensued.  

    Ultimately, I want our troops home safe and sound and in an expedient manner.  Once we are out, then release all the photos that we have.  But until then, I do think that the safety of our troops comes before our right to SEE in this situation.

  3. but I’ve got nothing. Oh well, that’s never stopped me before. Here goes nothing.

    There is some speculation that the UK memos were written in response to a request by the UK government. They needed cover beyond their own official secrets act to keep this information from the public. I have no idea if this is true or not, but even if it is true all it does is implicate the UK government. It does nothing to absolve Obama.

    The photos are another matter. I’m of two minds about this. One side believes the photos won’t add much to the debate. About the only good their release would do is to help swing sentiment in the US for further investigations. I’m not so sure that would be the case. It might actually make the partisan divide even greater.

    That doesn’t seem to be the greatest concern, tho. Obama’s statement makes it clear that the justification is a fear of negative reactions in the Muslim world. I can’t buy that argument. The photos from Abu Ghraib are all over the Internet. Hell, Abu Ghraib has its own wiki page with plenty of photos. I would think that 10’s of thousands of Iraqi and Afghani deaths would have greater impact than these photos. Does anyone really believe they can get more angry at us? After all, it’s not as if they don’t already know what has been going on.

    The biggest issue to me isn’t the attempt to stifle the release of the redacted memos in the UK or to keep the photos from being released. The biggest issue is whether or not we are going to have a real investigation into whether or not war crimes have been committed and whether the investigators will be empowered to recommend prosecutions based on their investigation.

    These are two big disappointments. They are not change you can believe in, for one thing. It’s more of the same. And it sure as hell isn’t transparency in government. More like opacity.

  4. HappyinVT

    I’m not sure I disagree with Obama’s action although his statement regarding it leaves a lot to be desired.  I think the generals in Afghanistan and Iraq presuaded him that the release of these photos could have an adverse affect on how the troops are treated in those countries.  This is significant because it could damage our capabilities to draw down in Iraq and have any successful strategy in Afghanistan.  Does this change of heart also have anything to do with the apparent change of command in Afghanistan?  McChristol (sp?) is going to face serious questioning in Congress (at least he should) regarding his involvement in the Pat Tillman debacle and well as denying the Red Cross access in Iraq during the early part of the war.  But, those issues aside, I do wonder what’s going on with Afghanistan.  And, how, if at all, does this flip-flop fit into the picture.

    Also, I’ve seen a lot of people make the assumption that this is another signal that Obama is not going to allow prosecutions.  I simply do not know.  Although Holder said today that they would follow the evidence, keeping the CIA agents away from prosecution, however.

    Frankly, I’m not sure what good releasing the photos does.  Does the public automatically have a right to see them?  Why?  Should we also see the crime scene photos from the recent killing of the five US soldiers in Iraq?  Again, what really is the point of releasing these photos?  Lots of people want to satisfy their curiousity or to prove how bad folks can act in time of conflict or to justify their outrage that we went to war in the first place or as another reason to hate the Bush administration officials who talked us into war in the first place.

    Having said all that, I wish the president hadn’t changed his mind.  As with the torture memos, although folks seem to forget the point, the courts have ruled that these pictures should be released.  So, if he was looking for cover he already had it.  I think he’s put himself in a worse place now than he would have been in had he just let them come out.

  5. this message has been pounded non-stop by conservative radio for the past few weeks (or since the topic of releasing the photos was raised) in exactly those terms.

    One notable exchange a week or so ago between a conservative host and a liberal guest (a rare event on right-talk radio) had me talking to the car.  The host kept interrupting with variations on “how many American soldiers do you want to die?”.  The guest did a reasonable job of holding his own but I really wanted him to escalate the topic.  It is a very difficult topic to address well in words – more difficult in text – but the answer is that there is no more honorable sacrifice an American soldier can make than to die defending the honor and integrity of his or her country.

    I’ll have to see Obama’s full statement before I can give my specific comment to it, but I think that Uygur overstates the point.  Obama has already said that those who performed the torture were following orders and trying to protect America (which I believe they were, misguided or not).  I don’t see anything in the shape of his statement to indicate that he setup “anyone who tries to show their misdeeds” as endangering America, that’s hyperbolic extension.  The fact is that those pictures could indirectly lead to a US soldier being killed.  The tough fact to swallow is that this may be the price of liberty and truth – among the only ideals worth sending people to die for.

  6. Sully has been a strong opponent of the Bush/Cheney torture regime and has been surprisingly patient with Obama since the election. He’s not so forgiving on this one.

    The President Explains

    Here’s how he has defended the decision not to release the photos of prisoner abuse:

    “I want to emphasize that these photos that were requested in this case are not particularly sensational, especially when compared to the images we remember from Abu Ghraib,” the president said on the South Lawn of the White House. “But they do represent conduct that didn’t conform with the Army manual.”

    Obama said the publication of the photos would not add any additional benefit to investigations being carried out into detainee abuse — and could put future inquires at risk.

    “In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would further flame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger. … I fear the publication of these photos may only have a chilling effect on future investigations of detainee abuse.”

    Let’s unpack this. It’s understandable that releasing new evidence of the widespread torture and abuse policy of Bush and Cheney, including techniques that were tailored specifically against Muslims, could inflame the populations of Iraq and Afghanistan, the two newest military theaters for the US. On the brink of what may be a brutal summer in all theaters in a war whose purpose is now opaque, one can understand the caution, and there is no reason to doubt the genuine worries of commanders in the field. But it is important to remember that it is the abuse that inflames, not the accounting of the abuse. And for Obama Agblood to act as an extension of the Bush era of secrecy is potentially more damaging to the US and its interests and servicemembers. He risks looking like Bush’s continuation, not a clear caesura. That does not help the war, although the loathing of America in Pakistan and parts of Afghanistan is so intense it is hard to see how anything could make it worse.

    He has more to say and then this…

    You cannot show weakness in the face of this shamelessness. Maybe it’s a long game and accountability is a dish best served cold and late. But what if there’s always a reason in an endless war of occupation of multiple countries not to serve it at all?

  7. Michelle

    More and more revelations to come…

    I strongly urge you to read this soldier’s testimony of his experience as an interrogator in Iraq and his opposition to torture.

    This is why I support this decision and is at the heart of Brandon’s argument:

    The final pragmatic argument that I offer against torture and abuse is that future adversaries will be less likely to surrender to us during combat.  During the first Gulf War, thousands of Iraqi troops surrendered to American forces knowing that they would be fairly treated as prisoners of war.  This same rational was present during World War II, where German soldiers fought and evaded in the vicinity of Berlin for the privilege of being captured by American versus Russian troops.  If future adversaries are unwilling to surrender to us because of the manner in which we’ve treated prisoners in the current conflict, it will have a real cost in American lives.


  8. rfahey22

    Probably releasing the photos wouldn’t cause more damage than everything else that has occurred.  But then, I’m pretty far removed from the warzone.  Hopefully they will eventually be released.

  9. vcalzone

    It doesn’t exist. Obama’s credibility on National Security? Zilch. He hasn’t earned it. Once he has pulled off a couple of successes, he can begin to take on Cheney and the rest. Until then, anytime he picks this fight, he’s instantly susceptible to the argument that he’s making America unsafe with no real chance at a defense.

    Sullivan is great, and easily one of the best sources for commentary on the issue that you can find. But he doesn’t operate in the world that exists right now. Obama has a ton of public support, but significantly less in Washington. He spends political capital every time he moves on this front, and he has to really make that spread as far as he can.

    It would be horrifying to me to see Obama LOSE the debate on this subject. I want all this information to be released, but I can wait. All we NEEDED was for him to end the practice and move in the opposite direction, and he is. The rest is just whatever he can manage.

  10. creamer

      I tend to agree with vcalzone. If and when Justice decides to prosecute, theese photo’s will be evidence I would suppose. It would seem that if Leahy ever gets somthing going in the senate, theese photos would proably be available to them in some fashion.

     President Obama has said quite forcefully on a number of ocassions that we will not torture, and has been quite specific on what we will allow our personel to do.I also think that if he openly endorsed trials and prosecutions it would so disrupt our government that he would not accomplish anything else he has on our agenda.

    I favor gathering evidencevia a special prosecutor or independent counsel that would allow us to make a decision about prosecution somtime in the future. And while disappointed that hasn’t happened I see no advantage to releasing theese photo’s.

  11. Michelle

    This whole thing about the photos is an ongoing legal battle in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU.  The Appeals Court has upheld the lower court’s ruling that the government MUST release the photos under FOIA.  Obama knows this very well, and he was originally stepping back from the government pursuing an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which odds on, will not take the case meaning that the ruling will stand and the photos will have to be released.  Obama is keenly aware of the likelihood that the photos will be released because of the court findings, and yet, he still said that he is siding with the commanders on the ground.  Shrewd move, counselor.

    The Pentagon is currently compelled by a court order to turn 22 photos over to the ACLU, which sued the government under the Freedom of Information Act for their release in 2003. The Pentagon lost in district court and lost again on appeal; earlier this year Pentagon lawyers decided not to appeal to the Supreme Court and struck a deal with the ACLU. The government has no say at this point in whether or not those photos get released-either the FOIA compels their release or it doesn’t, and it’s up to a court to decide that question. All Obama did yesterday was authorize the Pentagon to ask the Supreme Court to take the case. The Court might take the case or it might not. And if it does, it will almost certainly uphold the decisions of the district and appeals courts and order the photos to be released.

    EmPHAsis mine. 😉

    Interesting commentary on the whole issue here.

  12. vcalzone

    Wootoff is going on. Anyone who needs or wants to buy anything should keep an eye out, because I’ve never seen Woot carry anything that wasn’t the lowest price available anywhere outside of Black Friday. Picked up a Breville espresso machine earlier for $84.99 with shipping.

  13. nrafter530

    I used to be into that show in the states, and I watched some episodes online when I can, but all my friends seemed to be shocked by the season finale. I’m wondering if it was worth the watch.  

  14. creamer

    You see that just following this thread, in the progressives and centrist here you see differing opinions.

    Today the media is aflame with the thought of a US congress person accusing the CIA of lying. The thought of an agency that trains its employee’s to lie, actually lying appears to be more than the pundits can take.

     It would seem that some big media types are seeing big ratings in torture. I wouldn’t expect this to go away anytime soon.

  15. HappyinVT

    what the heck in going on over on your side of the pond?!  Seems like your government’s got some ‘splaining’ to do.

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