The Torture Memos

April 17, 2009 at 1:34 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, International, Terrorism, U.S. Politics | 2 Comments


From the moment Barack Obama became President, there was much debate inside his party over how the new administration should investigate and prosecute any crimes committed by his predecessor. Of the two most widely-discussed proposals, liberal activists argued for a Special Prosecutor to take action against officials at all levels of the government, from CIA interrogators who conducted torture to anyone in the White House or Justice Department who may have sanctioned it. Others have embraced Sen. Patrick Leahy’s idea of establishing a bi-partisan ‘Truth Commission’ which would try to lay out the facts as impartially as possible, but with the primary aim of establishing truth rather than prosecuting crime.

Thus far, neither of these proposals have materialised, but following the release of another round of DoJ ‘torture memos’, the case for an independent inquiry becomes much stronger – as does the conflict between the pursuit of truth and the search for justice.

The four memos released by the Department of Justice are at once shocking and unsurprising. They shock not just because they provide further evidence of the depths the Bush administration sunk to, but because of their clinical, legalistic, matter-of-fact descriptions of depravity. That said, the steady drip-drip-drip of leaked stories and accusations from Guantanamo detainees have already prepared us for much of what is contained in these documents, and to that end, they only serve to confirm what many people suspected.

But what will keep this story running for months – maybe years – to come are the important questions these documents dare us to ask. As Spencer Ackerman writes:

What the memos leave unclear is how much the CIA jumped into the torture game and how much the Bush administration pushed it. The memos are written to be responsive to the CIA lawyer — the malefactor going to the priest to give his work absolution. They’re written to guide the interrogators. But they leave unclear — as does most of the narrative so far — who’s compelling Rizzo in the CIA counsel’s office to keep pushing for more. The senior leadership of the agency? The heads of its directorate of operations, which overseas the interrogators? The Counterterrorist Center leaders? Without this information, we don’t have a clear sense of moral culpability for the torture. And then we’ll need to know what kind of pressure they were under from the Bush administration. Who was pressured? Who was eager to comply? Who resisted? Who pressed his or her colleagues into acquiescence or insubordination? All of these questions are related but separate to the question of legal culpability.

Reacting to the release of the memos, President Obama argued that this is a “time for reflection, not retribution”, and warned against ‘spending our time and energy laying blame for the past’. A nice sentiment, perhaps, but he must surely know that by releasing these memos, the call for more information, for investigations and for the commencement of criminal prosecutions is becoming irresistible. According to Glenn Greenwald, there is clearly enough evidence already in the public domain to prosecute several individuals for war crimes, and that’s without anything like the kind of far-reaching investigation which is now being demanded.

But the Obama administration remains reluctant to talk about prosecutions, and for a number of reasons. First, I think the (admittedly rather weak) Nuremberg Defense reflects a desire to (a) avoid embroiling a department which should be fighting terrorism in accrimony & accusations, and (b) to avoid a repeat of the situation where someone like Lynndie England was made a scapegoat for abuses which went much higher up the chain of command. Second, the ultimate responsibility for sanctioning these acts of torture looks likely to rest on some very senior figures in the CIA, the Justice Department, and possibly the White House itself, and with that comes the risk of engulfing the Obama administration in the kind of highly-charged partisanship not seen since Bill Clinton’s impeachment.

By releasing these memos, I think the Obama administration is attempting to reveal the truth of America’s torture regime whilst (for now, at least) resisting the call for justice. I can’t see how this will succeed in the long run; these revelations have only prompted calls for more information, and as Guantanamo Bay begins to close down and more inmates tell their stories, the administration will be forced to reveal even more about what the prisoners were subjected to – and who was ultimately responsible. The steady trickle of horror stories about the Bush administration’s brutality hasn’t stopped yet, and those responsible may yet drown in it.


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    If ever an example for the imperative for prison reform, this is it.

  2. […] of Bush’s line on secrecy, the revival of military trials at Guantanamo Bay, the promise of immunity for torturers and the flagrant bullying of the British state over Binyam Mohamed, we see not a few […]

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