What we already knew, finally said explicitly by someone in a position to know.
The top Bush administration official in charge of deciding whether to bring Guantanamo Bay detainees to trial has concluded that the U.S. military tortured a Saudi national who allegedly planned to participate in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, interrogating him with techniques that included sustained isolation, sleep deprivation, nudity and prolonged exposure to cold, leaving him in a “life-threatening condition.”
“We tortured [Mohammed al-]Qahtani,” said Susan J. Crawford, in her first interview since being named convening authority of military commissions by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in February 2007. “His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case” for prosecution.
About prosecuting the torturers, I understand the point that Obama needs pressure from us to do the right thing, but on that particular point I really wish that people would calm down a notch. There are several reasons why I feel that way.
(1) We (and by ‘we’ I mean in large part Glenn Greenwald) successfully forced Obama to drop a torture-defending candidate for CIA chief. Instead Obama Leon Panetta, whose record on the issue is clear and unblemished. Notably Obama could make that substantive decision right now. It makes sense to influence decisions that Obama is currently making. It does not strike me as useful, however, to spend much energy on things that he cannot possibly do until he actually takes office.
(2) The present administration reads the papers. If Obama gives the impression that he is hell-bent on jailing Bushies then the President will certainly Fletcher the third and fourth branches of government, including himself if he thinks justice Kennedy will swing his way on that question. That would make it easier to subpoena people who cannot plead the Fifth, and it would automatically trigger war crimes courts abroad, but we can all agree that people who torture, among other major crimes, should ideally face justice at home.
(3) Because there is no statute of limitations on torture, President Obama could change his mind at any time if and when more information comes to light. It follows that our first priority should be blocking the appointment of government officials who are potentially exposed to full accountability for Bush-era crimes. We can change his mind at any time, but not as easily if his administration has potential targets in the inner circle. The promises of a politician mean a lot less than what he actually does, and what he’s doing right now is appointing cabinet members.
(4) Much more information will come to light. Hundreds of insiders want to talk to reporters like Murray Waas and Seymour Hersh, but they legitimately fear the administration’s insane, singleminded vindictiveness regarding whistleblowers. Given the transformative effect of the stories that have already leaked, it seems safe to predict that the stories yet to be written will similarly harden public attitudes against Bush. Both reporters and Congress will have an easier time following up with when the Executive Branch chooses not to throw up every roadblock from bogus State Secrets claims to lying to Congress.
(5) Nobody casually decides to prosecute cabinet officials and above. Prosecutors of Lynndie England certainly weighed the political angles of their indictment; in the case of prosecuting Dick Cheney or Alberto Gonzales the political angle is so overwhelming that it overshadows the profound legal exposure of either, and I say that with a full understanding of how thoroughly Cheney and Gonzales trashed the US Constitution. Look at it as Kant might have done: do we want Presidents committing themselves to siccing prosecutors on previous administrations as a matter of habit? In four years every administration commits a sheaf offenses against good taste, against the English language and, yes, against the legal code of the United States. A determined prosecutor will inevitably find a nut. For that reason, even taking into account the obvious and undeniable crimes that we already know about, Obama will serve the country better if he begins with a skeptical position, one might call it conservative, and lets official fact-finding and public pressure move him in the right direction.
Add it all together and I’m not saying that we should not keep the pressure on Obama to do the right thing. Far from it. I think that we should pressure the hell out of Obama but make sure that we focus on where pressure will produce useful results. Promises from a politician and $3.50 will get you a voting share in Madoff Investment Securities LLC. So why demand them? We should pressure Obama to keep the taint of Bush crimes out of his cabinet. We did that (again, by ‘we’ I mean Greenwald and a few others).
We must ensure that the truth comes out. Seymour Hersh and other reporters will do some heavy lifting in that respect, but history has shown that the press weighs ‘official’ commissions (e.g., the Iraq Study Group’s fart-in-a-tornado recommendations) over original work by solid reporters like Hersh. We need to make sure that Congress and Obama, who clearly responds to pressure, use every power at their disposal to expose what the Bush gang have tried so hard to hide. We can push for official commissions with broad subpoena powers, staffed with members determined to do their job and who lack Bush-era conflicts (Waxman yes, Harman no).
With that done, we can hope that the public responds appropriately when it fully understands the depraved, criminally incompetent regime of the last eight years. If the public doesn’t demand accountability, which pressure Obama would be unable to resist, then as a country we don’t deserve it.