The Cancer of Democracy

Last month, representing Amnesty International in a meeting at the State Department, I listened to the new Legal Adviser Harold Koh, former Dean of the Yale Law School, describe the Obama administration as the anti-torture presidency.

That is a bold claim and the International Day in Support of the Victims of Torture is the perfect moment to take a step back and review the administration’s record on this issue. Can Obama really claim to be the anti-torture president?

As far as human rights groups were concerned the Obama administration got off to a flying start with the executive orders pledging to close Guantanamo and restricting all US personnel to using interrogation techniques delineated in the 2006 Army Field Manual on Interrogations.

Unfortunately this was high point and it has been downhill all the way ever since. While the Executive Order put an apparent end to waterboarding and CIA black sites the 2006 Interrogations Field Manual is itself far from unproblematic.

There is nothing in the manual to prevent the reintroduction of the so-called “frequent flyer” technique of constantly waking and rewaking an individual after only a few minutes sleep so that no effective rest is gained at all.

In the past eight months credible reports have emerged that such techniques are still being used in US military detainee screening centers in Afghanistan. An earlier US Army field manual explicitly prohibited “abnormal sleep deprivation” as a form of “mental torture.”


Republicans Protest Too Much

Right-wing Republicans have reportedly been mobilizing to block the appointment of two prominent lawyers to advisory positions in the Obama administration: Indiana University constitutional law Professor Dawn Johnsen and the Dean of the Yale Law School Harold Koh.

Johnsen is the administration’s nominee to head for the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice and Koh is nominated to be the Legal Counsel at the State Department. Both have a strong human rights record, Johnsen was Legal Director of the National Abortion & Reproductive Rights Action League and Koh served as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in the Clinton administration. Both have distinguished records of government service.

The legal commentator Scott Horton has cited anonymous sources in the GOP and DoJ who claim Senate Republicans are now threatening to filibuster the appointments unless the Obama administration agrees not to release three classified memos authored by one of John Yoo’s successors in the Office of Legal Counsel, Steven Bradbury.

The memos, which have been described by Glenn Greenwald on as the “Rosetta stone” for documenting war crimes committed by the highest-level Bush DoJ officials, have been the subject of a determined legal effort by the ACLU to compel their disclosure. This effort has so far been opposed by the Obama administration despite its avowed commitment to transparency in government.

So, why not strike a deal? Because we still have not got to the bottom of what happened in our name. New information continues to emerge on an almost weekly basis. On Monday we saw the release of more material from the leaked International Committee of the Red Cross report on the treatment of High Value Detainees in CIA custody which revealed in detail for the first time the direct complicity of medical personnel in acts of torture in complete violation of the most basic of medical ethics.

This drip-drip of revelations is harmful in itself, undermining attempts to restore legitimacy to America’s struggle with terrorism. This will only end when there are no more revelations to emerge and that is why a full accounting for the abuses that have occurred since September 11th is so important. As is a renewed commitment to using the criminal justice system to fight terrorism rather than the ‘dark arts’ in which former Vice President Dick Cheney placed so much faith.

Holding ourselves to higher standard makes us smarter and more effective. The simple arithmetic regarding the number of releases without charge from Guantanamo makes it clear that with the ‘gloves off’ US officials were wrong about a detainee’s affiliations far many more times than they were right. We can do better than that.