Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Closing Gitmo & Secret Prisons; Banning Torture

President Obama today issued several welcome Executive Orders rolling back some of the worst abuses of the Bush era:

  • An order to close the detention center at Guantanemo Bay Cuba completely within the year.  Some of the detainees will simply be released or repatriated, some will be tried in regular courts and some who are clearly dangerous but who cannot be tried in either civilian or military courts because Bush folk screwed up and tortured them no one knows yet how to handle.  If the Obama people follow the law, they may have no choice but to release these people because their attorneys can file writs of Habeas Corpus.  This is a legal and national security mess (and a MORAL mess) that Bush created that will  be hard to clean up.
  • An order to close the so-called “black sites,” the ring of secret CIA prisons around the world created by the Bush administration. I hope the Obama administration allows international human rights observers and journalists to see all of these gulags.
  • An order to place all interrogations under the standards of the U.S. Army Field Manual (which spells out interrogation techniques allowed by international law, especially the Geneva Conventions), effectively banning torture.  Several sources seem to see a loophole for expanding those interrogation techniques in the order, but given the people Obama is putting in the Office of Legal Counsel, I don’t really fear that he will allow torture to sneak back in. [UPDATE: The Obama people told the Washington Post and the L.A. Times today that this is NOT a loophole. Rather, because the CIA doesn’t want to be guided by the Army Field Manual, this will develop a similar guide that is just as compliant with the Geneva Conventions as the Army Field Manual. This is what was done from 1947 when the CIA was created until the Bushies suddenly considered the Geneva Conventions “quaint.”] I worry more that what is ended by executive order could be allowed again by another executive order in a future administration.  Congress should act quickly to require all interrogations be controlled by the standards of the Geneva Conventions and the relevant treaties against torture. Statute removes this from simply policy differences. [ UPDATE: Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) is reintroducing legislation that will make the Army Field Manual standards apply to  all interrogations, thus making it harder for a new president to reverse Obama’s decision and return to Bush torture practices.  Hooray!  However, there is some irony here since many, including myself, have been critical of DiFi for not doing more to stop the Bush people from torture, spying on Americans,  etc. So, maybe she’s seen the light.] Prosecuting past abuses will also put all future administrations on notice.
  •  We need to be vigilant, here. All politicians like to give themselves “wiggle room” vis-a-vis the law and Obama the Constitutional Scholar will struggle with Obama the Commander in Chief in a world of terrorist networks.  Congress, the courts, and WE, the PEOPLE, need to work against any temptations to backslide back into the Bush era.  Faith networks like Evangelicals for Human Rights and the National Religious Coalition Against Torture need to play our part–because stupid pro-torture TV shows like “24” are shaping public attitudes where moral authorities do not speak up. UPDATE:  Aaron Weaver has posted the public reaction from my friend, Baptist ethicist Dave Gushee, founder of Evangelicals for Human Rights, on these orders at this link!
  • An order reoking Bush’s efforts to hide all presidential and ex-presidential papers forever in presidential libraries, undercutting the post-Watergate “Presidential Records Act.”  This will add transparency back into government–and sunshine is still the best cure for skullduggery.  Why did W issue this order BEFORE 9/11? I think it was to bury evidence of just how far his father, George H.W. Bush (or Pres. 41), was involved in the Iran-Contra crimes.  The statute of limitations has expired, but at least future generations will know. And, of course, no limitations have run out on Jr’s own crimes.  Prosecute NOW!

This is a good start.  It’s also welcome news that former Sen. George Mitchell, who negotiated an end to the fighting in Northern Ireland during the ’90s, is being sent as special envoy to the Middle East and Richard Holbrooke as special envoy to Afghanistan, Pakistan and the region. (I also think some Muslim American faces should be part of these efforts.) I  am still nervous about Timothy Geithner as Treasury Secretary and keeping Bob Gates on as Secretary of Defense, but these bold moves begin the process of restoring the U.S.’ moral stature (never as large as we Americans usually believe–read our history–but seldom as far off course in modern history as in the last 8 years).

These efforts will also be controversial. Many Americans voted for Obama for other reasons and only 51% approve the closing of the Gitmo gulag.  58% approve banning all torture, which is still too low a percentage, imo.

This is all the more reason to fulfill this campaign promise quickly, while Obama enjoys an 83% approval rating.  (Psst. Mr. President: For the same reason, this would be a great time to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on GLBT folks serving openly in the military–a repeal now supported by many military brass, and to urge Congress to pass quickly the Employee Non-Discrimination Act [ENDA–bans discrimination in hiring, promotions, etc. for GLBT persons, with religious liberty exceptions for churches,  synagogues, etc.] & the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act [DOMA–the federal law against same-sex marriages signed by Bill Clinton in ’96]. If you wait until later,  these measures will be much harder to do.)

January 22, 2009 - Posted by | civil liberties, human rights., terrorism prevention, torture, U.S. politics


  1. I’m also praying that the terrorists will be able to come to America, realize how much we really do love them and assimilate into our society. Because there’s nothing better than giving killers due-process and a better opportunity to finish their job.

    What a great day for our nation. And once the President can figure out what the hell he just signed (without it being explained to him mid-press conference), perhaps we can focus on our own murderers going free. Woo-hoo!

    Comment by Brrrrrrack-O | January 22, 2009

  2. Good moves all around.

    As for Gates, I think it was a smart move. I don’t think he’ll be there long term, but he knows where the bodies are buried, so to speak. He is on board with the draw down and can help it succeed. He’s actually more in sync with Obama than with Bush.

    Comment by Bob Cornwall | January 23, 2009

  3. Closing Gitmo will lead to other changes that may end up being worse than Gitmo. Terrorism will not go away because BHO orders Gitmo closed.One wonders how Al Qaeda, Hamas and asundry terrorist groups view the closing of Gitmo. Anyone care to hazard a guess on that point ?

    Comment by Paul | January 24, 2009

  4. No one claims, Paul, that closing Gitmos will simply be a magic wand that causes terrorism to disappear. Rather, it is because Gitmo had become a symbol that America was hypocritical in its claims of moral superiority that it alienates potential allies in the struggle against terrorism. Further, Gitmo and Abu Ghraib had become recruiting tools for al Qaeda. Closing Gitmo removes that talking point. I suspect that al Qaeda is skeptical that Obama really means to close it.

    By the way, I believe that Gitmo, because it became a place where we put not only some terrorists (although without charge or trial), but innocent people whom we have held for years without trial, lawyers, the right of habeas corpus, and some of whom we tortured, we have been CREATING new terrorists.

    Closing Gitmo and banning torture does not drain the swamp that breeds terrorism, but it DOES give us that opportunity. We have been trying to destroy terrorism simply by killing (and torturing) terrorists, never realize that we create 2 or more terrorists for everyone we kill and multiple terrorists for everyone we torture or imprison without trial or due process (betraying our own ideals). Instead, claiming our ideals as strengths, we should struggle against slavery by removing its causes–draining the swamps that breed the disease of terrorism. The metaphor of war, as in “war on terrorism,” hinders us and blinds us. Terrorism is a METHOD and one cannot actually go to war against a METHOD. It would be like going to war against calvary charges, or against “surges.” I mean, the KKK uses terrorism. We need to separate those who lead such groups as Hamas (truly evil people who plan harm) from those they would recruit, just like we once knew that rightwing political repression bred new generations of Communists in the Two-Thirds World. Addressing global injustice is both moral and vital to our national security. Gitmo, instead of making it harder for al Qaeda to recruit, makes it easier.

    But closing it is just a step in the right direction, not a cure all by itself.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 24, 2009

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