Business as Usual?

The past week has seen some alarming news stories (and bloggers trying to figure out how alarming) suggesting that the Obama administration may be backing away from commitments made on the campaign trail to end detainee abuse, promote American adherance to international human rights standards and bring greater transparency to Washington.

The Senate confirmation hearings for the new Director of the Central Intelligence, Leon Panetta, raised the most significant flag when he told Senators that he had no intention of holding CIA officers responsible for the policies they were told to carry out – effectively suggesting the historically discredited defense of “only obeying orders” would be given currency by the Obama administration.

Equally disappointing was the decision by Department of Justice lawyers to press for the dismissal of a civil case brought by five victims of the Bush administration’s rendition program against Jeppersen Dataplan Inc., the US-based flight services company that facilitated the renditions, advancing the same ‘state secrets’ argument employed by the previous administration.

The administration has also continued to block the release of 42 classified documents concerning the ill-treatment of British Guantanamo detainee Binyam Mohamed. The Bush administration threatened to drastically reduce intelligence cooperation with the United Kingdom if the documents were made public by the British High Court.

Just how concerned should we be? Andrew Sullivan of the Atlantic cautioned yesterday that the administration may simply be in a holding pattern pending a thorough review of their predecessors’ positions on a range of issues with long-term legal implications. This may well be so. However, those concerned about human rights and accountability must keep up the pressure for change.

President Obama has been consistent in his assertion that he is interested in looking forward not backwards and it is unlikely that any initiative to establish an accounting process for the widespread abuses committed under the rubric of the Global War on Terror will come from inside the administration unless political pressure builds on the President to act

The fact that the Chairmen of the Judiciary Committees of both Houses of Congress, Representative Conyers (D, Michigan) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D, Vermont) have called for the establishment of a commission of inquiry to investigate the abuses of the past seven years is a powerful step towards accountability. But it is only the first step in what will likely be a long journey.

Next week Amnesty International USA activists across the country will participate in a Congressional call-in week, urging their senators and representative to support an independent investigation into the Bush administration’s war-on-terror policies. Please join them in adding your voice to our campaign to end the culture of impunity that has blackened America’s reputation around the world.

Freed GTMO Detainee Becomes Al Qaeda Chief? Blame Bush (and Clinton).

In a case of interesting timing, today’s New York Times reports in “Freed by U.S., Saudi Becomes a Qaeda Chief”  that a former Guantanamo detainee is now a deputy leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen and opines that this has “underscored the potential complications in carrying out the executive order President Obama signed Thursday that the detention center be shut down within a year.” A related Times online forum debates “The Risks of Releasing Detainees.” 

To me, however, this case–and the Pentagon’s reports of recidivism–underscores the failure of the Bush administration’s attempt to identify and prosecute those responsible for 9/11.

By resorting to illegal and untested practices and policies, the Bush administration turned its back on the best tools we have for identifying and prosecuting people responsible for grave acts of violence against civilians–including standard law-enforcement practices and a tried and true federal court system.

As a result, some of the wrong people may have been released and some of the wrong people have been (and continue to be) detained–while those ultimately responsible for 9/11 remain either at large or unprosecuted.

This is criminal. In addition to accountability for torture and other abuses against detainees, there should be accountability for the failure to identify, apprehend and prosecute those who have attacked the United States, whether under G.W. Bush’s administration–or Clinton’s.

If anything, accounts of the radicalization of former detainees underscore the need for a full, independent, investigation into the U.S. government’s detention and interrogation program to find out where things went wrong, make sure the same mistakes aren’t repeated and hold those responsible accountable.  

President Obama has the power to make it all happen. Let him know you want him to.