On war, indefinite detention and torture, Obama’s second term already disappoints
Two weeks after his second inauguration and giving what many liberals hailed as one of his most inspired speeches ever – with some even calling it a “progressive manifesto” – President Barack Obama is already providing unmistakable indications that when it comes to issues related to war and peace, the rule of law, human rights and international norms, the second Obama term will be no more progressive than the first term.
In some cases, the messages of his inaugural address were directly contradicted by his actual policies that were being carried out in real time. One line in particular that drew the ire of antiwar activists was his assurance that “a decade of war is now ending,” a line that was greeted with enthusiastic applause from his supporters attending the inauguration, but with great skepticism by those who have been protesting Obama’s drone wars over the past several years.
Some took to Twitter to point out that on the very same day that he declared an end to a decade of war, a U.S. drone strike killed three suspected terrorists in Yemen. Following this attack, a Yemeni cabinet minister criticized Obama’s drone war in Yemen, noting that innocent civilians are often killed in these strikes.
“To have an innocent person fall, this is a major breach,” Yemeni Human Rights Minister Hooria Mashhour told Reuters. “I am in favor of changing the anti-terrorism strategy, I think there are more effective strategies that can be applied on the ground without harming civilians and without leading to human rights violations.”
Disregarding this complaint, two days later, on Jan. 23, the U.S. launched another drone attack in Yemen that killed at least six.
A UN investigation is now underway that will examine in detail 25 drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Palestine where civilian deaths are credibly alleged. Announced on Jan. 24, it is the first official international inquiry into the drone program.
UN Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson, who is leading the investigation, told Wired.com that he’s not shying away exposing U.S. “war crimes.”
Despite the UN inquiry, the U.S. appears poised to expand its drone wars into Africa. On Jan. 28, the U.S. signed a status of forces agreement with Niger “that clears the way for a stepped-up American military presence on the edges of the conflict in neighboring Mali,” the Wall Street Journal reported, and that establishes a drone base in North Africa to counter Islamist militants in the region.
Considering these developments, it’s hard to understand what Obama might have been thinking when he said that a decade of war is ending. Indeed, Obama’s own nominee to for Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel directly contradicted Obama’s claim by acknowledging in his Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 31, “We’re at war around the world.”
Hagel pointed to various global threats that the United States must take the lead in countering, with turmoil across the Middle East and North Africa, cyber war, al Qaeda, an ongoing war in Afghanistan, and challenges from nuclear-armed North Korea and Pakistan, as well as rogue state Iran, and a resurgent China.
Not only does it appear that the war is no closer to ending than it was when it began a decade ago, post-inauguration developments have also provided disappointing indications that the war will continue to be prosecuted with the same disregard for constitutional principles and international law.
Soon after renewing his oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution on Jan. 20, Obama made it immediately clear that he would be doing no such thing, at least as far as the policies of indefinite detention and torture are concerned. In particular, the Obama administration tacitly confirmed that the policy of closing the legal black hole known as Guantanamo Bay was being abandoned.
As the New York Times reported on January 28,
The State Department on Monday reassigned Daniel Fried, the special envoy for closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and will not replace him, according to an internal personnel announcement. Mr. Fried’s office is being closed, and his former responsibilities will be “assumed” by the office of the department’s legal adviser, the notice said.
The announcement that no senior official in President Obama’s second term will succeed Mr. Fried in working primarily on diplomatic issues pertaining to repatriating or resettling detainees appeared to signal that the administration does not currently see the closing of the prison as a realistic priority, despite repeated statements that it still intends to do so.
In other words, Guantanamo Bay is here to stay. Critics of the administration’s Guantanamo policy pointed out that its recent surrender on this issue was just the latest in a long line of abject failures of leadership, going back to the initial promise made four years ago to close the prison camp.
“The Obama administration bungled its effort to close Gitmo early in the president’s first term,” wrote Adam Serwer at Mother Jones magazine, “and a bipartisan revolt in Congress over the possibility of bringing detainees to US soil, even for trial or imprisonment, led to extremely tight restrictions that slowed the rate of detainees leaving the prison to a crawl.”
Human rights organizations are nevertheless urging Obama to keep his promise and shut down the detention facility. On the 11th anniversary of its opening, on Jan. 11, a coalition including Amnesty International USA, Catholic Worker, Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the Bill of Rights Defense Committee demanded that the U.S. government either release the men still detained at Guantanamo or charge them and give them a fair trial.
“President Obama promised to close Guantanamo and end the United States’ unlawful detention practices,” said Amnesty International’s Frank Jannuzi. “Instead, he pivoted 180 degrees and embraced the policies initiated by his predecessor. By codifying indefinite detention, continuing military commission trials, failing to ensure accountability for abuses and otherwise ignoring the United States’ international legal obligations, the President has further entrenched the deeds he once criticized as immoral and illegal.”
Besides the failure to close Guantanamo, human rights groups have also been sorely disappointed by the Obama administration’s refusal to allow prosecutions of those who committed and authorized torture in the previous administration. Although the 2012 Democratic Party platform included a reiteration of Obama’s “torture ban” that he initiated in 2009, the failure to prosecute torturers remains a grave breach of the United States’ international obligations.
Last summer, Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed that CIA agents would face no charges over the torture and death of detainees while in custody, with the Justice Department ending a criminal investigation that had been probing the deaths of two men: one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
As Democracy Now reported, “Gul Rahman died in 2002 while being held at a secret CIA facility known as the ‘Salt Pit’ in Afghanistan. He had been shackled to a concrete wall in near-freezing temperatures. Manadel al-Jamadi died in 2003 while in CIA custody at Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison. His corpse was photographed packed in ice and wrapped in plastic.”
Nevertheless, Holder said that “based on the fully developed factual record concerning the two deaths, the Department has declined prosecution because the admissible evidence would not be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.”
In fact, the only person who is going to prison related to the United States’ torture policies is someone who never tortured anyone and is only accused of providing details on the program – including confirming the name of a CIA agent – to a journalist.
Under a plea deal reached with federal prosecutors, former CIA analyst John Kiriakou admitted to a single count of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act by revealing the identity of a covert officer to a freelance reporter, who never even published the name. For this supposed crime, he was sentenced to 30 months in prison on January 25.
His supporters claim that Kiriakou has been unfairly targeted for being the first CIA official to publicly confirm and detail the Bush administration’s use of waterboarding and criticizing other torture techniques employed by the United States.
In an interview with Democracy Now this week, Kiriakou said, “This was not a case about leaking; this was a case about torture. And I believe I’m going to prison because I blew the whistle on torture.”
“My oath was to the Constitution,” he added. “And to me, torture is unconstitutional.”
A petition has been launched calling on President Obama to pardon Kiriakou, stating:
It’s a cruel irony that the first agent connected to the CIA torture program to go to prison is the whistleblower who spoke out against the heinous practices of our government. From Bradley Manning to Aaron Swartz to John Kiriakou, the government’s pattern of overzealously prosecuting activists and whistleblowers has ruined too many lives already.
While ruining the lives of those who stand up against torture and government secrecy, Obama is rewarding those who helped establish those policies under the previous administration. Obama’s nominee to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan, was intimately involved in the implementation of the torture regime ten years ago.
Brennan had detailed information on the CIA’s torture program while serving there under President George W. Bush, with official records showing that Brennan received regular updates about the progress of torture techniques, including waterboarding.
In 2006, he told PBS’s Frontline that the Bush administration to, quote, “take off the gloves” after the 9/11 attacks:
The war, or the campaign against terrorism, is going to be a long one, and that the opposition, whether it be al-Qaeda or whether it be Iraq, doesn’t play by the Marquess of Queensbury rules, and therefore, you know, the U.S., in some areas, has to take off the gloves. And I think that’s entirely appropriate. I think we do have to take off the gloves in some areas, but within bounds, and at the right time, in the right way, and for the right reason, and with full understanding of what the consequences of that might be.
In response to his promotion to CIA Director, John Kiriakou said on Democracy Now that John Brennan “is a terrible choice to lead the CIA,” arguing that “it’s time for the CIA to move beyond the ugliness of the post-September 11th regime.”
“We need someone who is going to respect the Constitution and to not be bogged down by a legacy of torture,” Kiriakou sad. “I think that President Obama’s appointment of John Brennan sends the wrong message to all Americans.”