A Common-Sense Approach to Torture

President Obama again displayed in his speech today on national security that he is an exceptionally gifted and thoughtful politician who cares about the rule of law.  Indeed, there is much to admire in his remarks today.  So I can’t help wondering why he is being so obtuse about investigating torture. 

He says he wants to establish legal mechanisms for dealing with terrorists that will be useful for his successors.  “We can leave behind a legacy that outlasts my Administration, and that endures for the next President and the President after that. . .”, the President said.  Sadly, though, this vision of his legacy apparently does not include concrete measures to ensure that torture will never be carried out again by any of his successors, merely the hope that they will follow his example.  That is where his refusal to carry out his legal obligation to investigate torture leaves us — merely hoping his successors will be wise.

The President continues to characterize those who press for an investigation as vengeful zealots uninterested in constructive problem-solving:  “Already, we have seen how that kind of effort only leads those in Washington to different sides laying blame, and can distract us from focusing our time, our effort and our politics on the challenges of the future.”  The truth is, however, that many in the human rights movement who are calling for an investigation have worked most of their lives for justice and accountability for human rights crimes in country after country — Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, and so many others.  These are people whose purpose is the opposite of ”finger-pointing” for petty partisan aims.

In any event, it is not up to President Obama to decide all by himself how to prevent future abuses in combatting terrorism.  We — the public, Congress, and officials in the executive branch — all share in the responsibility for this “mess”, as the President labelled it.  We must seek solutions together, and an independent, impartial, nonpartisan commission of inquiry is the logical instrument through which we can begin to make this happen.

The weakness of the President’s argument against an investigation is made all the more stark by its contrast with the cogency of his arguments against torture and for closing Guantanamo.  Moreover, his speech today marked yet another flip-flop in the reasons for his opposition.  Just a month ago, he expressed his preference that, if there was going to be an investigation, it be conducted by an independent panel, outside the normal Congressional hearing process.  He said that he worried about hearings becoming too partisan.  Today, however, Mr. Obama said that he was opposed to an independent commission because he believes “our existing democratic institutions are strong enough to deliver accountability.  The Congress can review abuses of our values, and there are ongoing inquiries by the Congress into matters like enhanced interrogation techniques. . .”

Well, which is it?  Is the President now saying that balkanized investigations by Congressional committees controlled by Democrats are actually preferable to a truly independent investigation by experts who have no political agenda?  I don’t see the logic in this view.  The President prides himself on applying rational, common-sense approaches to problem solving.  But rationality and common sense are lacking in his stubborn opposition to an impartial investigation.  We need to figure out how to ensure future presidents won’t yield to the same cowardly impulses that defined the Bush administration’s resort to torture.  Only a thorough, impartial probe of how it happened can lead to effective remedies for the future.