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

Obama’s Refusal to Try Bush Torturers Unconscionable

UPDATE: Lawyer friends have analyzed Obama’s statements and said that he has not ruled out prosecuting the authors of the memos, but only those who were “just following orders.” I still find this to be bad–a Nazi defense. But I do want the higher ups more than the drones. And I can’t help noticing that if the lower ranks are given immunity now, it removes the incentive and leverage to have them testify against their bosses.  So, while this is better, it’s still not good.

Obama keeps releasing the torture memos of the Bush administration, but he refuses to have Attorney General Holder to appoint a special prosecutor and go after either the ones “just following orders,” (the Nazi claim at the Nuremberg Trials) or those who wrote them.  This “I want to go forward” and not prosecute policy is wrong.  I want hundreds of thousands of Americans to Whitehouse.gov and demand prosecutions. If we don’t prosecute, this could happen again in another administration.

Obama is protecting the Bush torturers.  Contact Congress and demand hearings AND demand that they refuse to pass the budget until the AG appoints a special prosecutor. 

AG Holder and Pres. Obama swore to uphold the law.  Demand–including with demonstrations if we need to–that the Obama administration uphold the law by prosecuting all those who tortured and authorized torture and related practices.

P.S.:  Different subject, but I want to cheer the Alaska legislature, Republicans and Democrats, for rejecting Governor Palin’s choice for state attorney general.  This is the first time since AK was a state that they have rejected any nominee for a cabinet post.  But this was important:  Palin’s choice was a man who had joked “if a man can’t rape his wife, who can he rape?” That should prevent his confirmation by itself.

P.P.S.:  Former Under-Secretary of State Richard Armitage (who was second-in-command to Colin Powell) interviewed with al-Jazeera TV and admitted that he should have resigned when he realized that the Bush admin had authorized torture.  But since al-Jazeera English is all but banned in the U.S.A., you won’t see this interview over here, although it has been reported.


April 16, 2009 - Posted by | torture


  1. Obama is looking like a President of broken promises from family pets to this. His mantra was change and he’s just carrying on as before.

    P.S. How do people get to such positions…

    P.P.S. What an interesting interview which should be shown. How did he come to be interviewed with al-Jazeera?

    Comment by steph | April 17, 2009

  2. I’d like to see you do any better, Steph.

    Comment by Stephen | April 17, 2009

  3. Er, Steph: Obama promised to end the Bush torture policies and appears to be doing just that. He never promised to prosecute, but I think he should. And the dog is here. How is that a broken promise. A newspaper in FL has actually set up an “Obama meter” to measure promises made verses kept and, so far, he’s kept far more promises than most presidential candidates–even ones (like adding troops to Afghanistan) that I thought he should rethink and change directions.

    P.S.: I don’t know.

    P.P.S.: I also don’t know how Armitage came to be interviewed by Al-Jazeera. But I hope he will follow it with U.S. interviews. If he isn’t just repenting, but can help put pressure to try Bushies, I’ll rejoice.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 17, 2009

  4. Stephen, that’s not quite fair.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 17, 2009

  5. Well actually I did get Delilah from a shelter when I said I would. And I never pretend to be a leader but I expect the leaders who might get my vote, to do the right thing. Obama would have got my vote if I was American.

    Michael: he cuddled up to animal lovers by expressing a wish to get a puppy from a shelter but instead bought a poncey pedigree. I have obviously misunderstood that he promised to hold torturers to account. I’m obviously a bit muddled over assumed dates of evacuation from Iraq. Perhaps I was always going to be disappointed with him. HE just doesn’t represent the degree of change I had hoped for.

    Comment by steph | April 17, 2009

  6. Actually, it was Michelle who wanted them to get a rescue dog from a shelter, but they also needed to consider Mahlia’s allergies. This dog was a gift from Sen. Kennedy. It fit the latter condition, but not the former, so the Obamas donated to the Humane Society.

    I’m disappointed, too, Steph, but I knew that it would not be easy to move after Bush. I want to hold Obama’s feet to the fire (politicians live up to their promises better that way), but also be somewhat patient. He’s been in office less than 100 days and he’s been handed the biggest mess of any president in decades: 2 wars to end responsibly, the worst economic mess since the Great Depression, a planet suffering from some nations (the U.S., Australia, China, India) ignoring global warming, terror networks (and now piracy!), etc. He also has to get his changes through Congress–so I understand his hesitation about blowing political capital by trying the torturers. I still think it is a mistake, but I also remember that the Republicans are holding up many of his appointees to the justice department. I also think he is waiting until the public outcry for a special prosecutor is so loud that he can okay it without the Republicans claiming that he is just trying to enact revenge on political enemies.

    President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said, “You’ve convinced me. Now MAKE me do it!” That’s my guiding principle: Elect the best people I can, then push them to do the right thing.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 17, 2009

  7. You are right of course and I hope you get the support to push because I really believe he listens unlike his predecessor who heard but did whatever anyway.

    I like Michelle. She’s got her feet on the ground.

    The piracy thing is another matter. I’m not keen on this bullet bandaid approach. Nobody addresses the root cause.

    Comment by steph | April 17, 2009

  8. Steph, Obama is President now and rest assured that he is learning that life at the top is a different ball game. He cannot just push through a radical Liberal agenda at the stroke of a pen. He has to be carefull to not throw the baby out with the bath water !

    Comment by Paul | April 17, 2009

  9. Radical liberal agenda???! His agenda was only ever centrist on a broader worldview of things. 🙂

    Comment by steph | April 17, 2009

  10. I laugh at the “radical liberal agenda” folks. I have heard nothing radically liberal from Obama. Of course to them, responding to climate change and acknowledging torture is “radically liberal.” As far as the torture prosecutions are concerned, many of us would love to see those responsible for torture brought to justice, but I don’t think this is the time. Republicans are waiting with baited breath for a really difficult issue to put their teeth into for 2010. This would be it. Political revenge, they would say. Traitorous, they would say. A Muslim in the White House weakening the country so that our enemies can walk across the border. The radical right would be in heaven, although many of them think that the rapture is imminent, so they really don’t need to imagine being there.

    Comment by Ralph Reed | April 17, 2009

  11. I don’t see why it is not “the time” to hold criminals to account for their misdeeds and there is certainly nothing radically liberal about doing that. I think I would be very happy if there really was an American President with a bona fide radical liberal agenda though… 🙂

    Comment by steph | April 17, 2009

  12. So Michael, which is it–is Obama’s refusal “unconscionable” or “understandable?”

    I say that what your calling “torture” is certainly understandable and certainly not criminal.

    You waffle so much that I’m getting the syrup out for breakfast tomorrow.

    Comment by Chuck | April 17, 2009

  13. It’s understandable from a political view–and unconsionable from a moral view. BTW, Chuck, this isn’t just “what I call torture.” It is DEFINED as torture in U.S. law, in international treaties we’ve signed, in hundreds of American and international court cases, and even in the torture memos themselves!!!

    I mean, they slammed people’s heads against walls, denied them sleep for up to 11 days at a time, put them in boxes with insects, and waterboarded them. After WWII we Americans tried (and HUNG!) Japanese soldiers who waterboarded Americans and other prisoners of war. During Vietnam, we tried and imprisoned AMERICAN soldiers who waterboarded Vietnamese prisoners.

    Rights are rights even for people we suspect of being terrorists. Crimes are crimes, even if committed for supposedly noble reasons.

    And refusing to prosecute is a moral slippery slope. Obama has shown courage in standing up to the CIA (which did not want the memos released), but he needs more to put these criminals on trial.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 17, 2009

  14. Steph, Ralph Reed seems to be among the many Obama supporters who are afraid that if he prosecutes the torturers, it will generate so much controversy that the GOP will stop all his legislative agenda. This is easier in our system than in a Parliamentary system. Here, the Senate Minority can make every vote need 60 votes to keep from getting filibustered.

    But, Ralph, if Obama waits too long to prosecute, it may be too late. Unlike in international law, there is a statute of limitations for torture and torture authorization in the U.S. I think it’s 8 years. So, it would be difficult to wait until, say, Obama is reelected in ’08. Courts could throw out cases for being past the statute of limitations.

    Here is where my priorities are different from Obama’s. He cares most about fixing the economy, universal healthcare, better schools, etc. I care about all those things, too. But if I have to choose between being a poor country that obeys the rule of law and upholds universal human rights and being a rich country that turns a blind eye to torture, I choose being poor.

    But instead of forcing the pres. to choose (the Republicans are going to oppose him on everything whether he prosecutes torturers or not), I am going to try to create a groundswell of public opinion DEMANDING trials.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 17, 2009

  15. I don’t understand how there can be so much controversy over this – it seems so rational, torturers must be prosecuted. I guarantee that you have a groundswell of support demanding trials from down under – not that it’s worth much unfortunately.

    Comment by steph | April 17, 2009

  16. Sorry, Michael, but I’m not understanding of–if it means having to stand for–the unconscionable in politics. That’s why I’m out to overturn abortion rights, and will use it as the prime litmus test in any election.

    Talk about torture! I pray for the day in which rights are rights for innocent unborn or partially-born babies as much as for fully-grown terrorists who try to kill us . . . that same day when taking that baby’s innocent life is realized to be every bit as criminal as depriving that terrorist of his sleep or scaring him with a caterpillar, even when the murder is committed for supposedly “noble” reasons.

    Our nation has been on the slipperiest of moral slopes since 1973.

    Comment by Chuck | April 17, 2009

  17. Chuck, understanding and tolerating are two different things. As you know, I disagree with you on abortion, but I do agree with you that the U.S. has been on a slippery slope tolerating moral abominations more and more for years. But it started long before Roe v. Wade in ’73. It began when we tolerated slavery even in our Constitution.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 17, 2009

  18. “Torturers” should be prosecuted, but they are innocent until proven guilty according to the law of the land. I personally wasn’t at Gitmo and know only what has been written about what purportedly went on there. The Left and Right have used Gitmo as a political football. I have noted a rush to judgement on this site by some people who already have their minds made up. I wouldn’t want such people on my jury if I was accused of a crime. I believe in punishment if a crime is committed, but the law isn’t a popularity contest. And a phenomenon that I have noted is that some folks in other countries love to pile on the USA when it suits their purpose. President Obama alluded to this in his speech in Trinidad and Tobago.

    Comment by Paul | April 18, 2009

  19. Paul, I wasn’t at Gitmo, but we do have testimony from guards that were and from the International Red Cross (which is officially charged in the UN Convention on Torture with deciding if torture has happened). We have the pictures at Abu Ghraib and documents that say those techniques were tried first at Gitmo. And we have all the testimony of the torture memos.

    So, yes. People are innocent until proven guilty. So, let’s get a special prosecutor and try ’em. Maybe we won’t get any convictions. But I think we will. It might be hard to get a jury. But we can’t just pass on it. We have a mountain of evidence–including written and verbal admissions by many of the principle players.

    BTW, since we’re mentioning innocence until guilt is proven, that’s NOT how we’re treating detainees at Gitmo OR Baghram. Rather, it’s “guilty until forgotten about.”

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 18, 2009

  20. “a phenomenon in other countries is to pile on the USA when it suits their purpose” what on earth does that mean?!! I think this ‘other country’ for one has been entirely consistent in criticising the USA for everything from the ‘war’ to its handling of Gitmo detainees and forgetting the torturers. It hasn’t served any favourable ‘purpose’ other than make us a ‘friend’ and not an ‘ally’ which I’m quite comfortable with (although that arose when we stopped letting your nuclear ships into our waters…)

    Comment by steph | April 18, 2009

  21. Yay, New Zealand. The U.S. could use more friends like the Kiwis and fewer allies and DEFINITELY fewer “special relationships” like with the UK–the international relations version of co-dependency in which the UK, especially when under Blair, fed our addiction to empire (perhaps vicariously trying to relive its imperial past). The UK is a lot happier post-empire. We will be too–but the transition will be painful for us and the world. Maybe more true friends like NZ telling us hard truths we don’t want to hear would help. (I kept hoping that our largest trading parter, Canada, would put real economic and political pressure on the Bush admin., but they never did.)

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 18, 2009

  22. It’s just a shame we’re so small and have so little clout but I’m at least happy that the new Donkee (John Keys) agrees strongly with Helen on all those major issues and we’re sticking to our guns (bad pun!). I hope Australia too behaves like the anti empire nation it was born as under Rudd. I was terrified being so close to it when Howard was greasing up to Bush.

    Comment by steph | April 18, 2009

  23. No amount of change would be enough for you Steph.

    Comment by Stephen | April 19, 2009

  24. I’m not sure that is fair to Steph, Stephen. I don’t think she’s part of those whom Obama rightly said were “knee-jerk and casually anti-American.” But having lived abroad, I know that it is difficult for those in different political cultures to understand the rightwing forces in the United States and why changes that seem minor to them are sweeping here.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 19, 2009

  25. I’m beginning to understand how important the little changes can be for good Americans, Michael. It does seem desperately slow from here though. And if Stephen thinks I’m just anti American, perhaps he’s just anti rest of the world. Anyway, I’ve while he might be falsely and naively accusing me of anti Americanism, I’ve was accused a couple of days ago of being a fundamentalist Christian because I was defending Christian scholarship against militant atheism. So I know that people can be quick to label people they don’t understand. And the American friends I know here are as frustrated as me with the slow rate of change at home.

    Comment by steph | April 19, 2009

  26. Micheal,

    Slavery was corrected, abortion hasn’t been yet.

    Big difference.

    Comment by Chuck | April 20, 2009

  27. if you can license someone to stab a late-term fetus in the head and then suck her brains out, why should you get all that upset if a few few terrorists get slapped around a little.

    Comment by Jennifer | April 20, 2009

  28. Let me get this straight. Are you really saying that Obama is retroactively complicit in torture? And that you want to prosecute attorney’s at the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Council. are you serious about this? Or is this some sort of right-wing ploy to make left-wingers look really silly? I’m beginning to think so.

    Do you also want to impeach Democrats like Nancy Pelosi or Jane Harman for giving their approval of these techniques, too? After all, former CIA director Hayden said just last week that House and Senate leaders on the intelligence oversight committees had been fully briefed–that would be Pelosi and Harman. And according to Washington Post investigative reports they even they asked whether the CIA was being aggressive enough in their interrogation techniques. You aren’t really serious are you? This is a joke, right?

    They aren’t going to prosecute anybody for the simply reason that there is nothing to prosecute anybody for. Obama released the memos over the objection of that extreme right-wing Clintonite, LEON PANETTA, his newly appointed CIA director, for Pete’s sake. I guess you think Panetta is a right-wing nutjob, too?

    Sorry, but just because some guy on the internet claims that a the law was broken doesn’t mean it was broken. Too bad you aren’t going to get your witch hunt. Given the laughable charges that slapping a prisoner, or walling him, or forcing them to go without sleep for a few hours, is torture you would be laughed out of court especially the court of pubic opinion.

    Obama may be a liberal, but he is not a wingnut like you guys. But hey, go ahead and accuse him of being retroactively complicit in torture. Fine with me.

    Comment by Jack | April 20, 2009

  29. I don’t think anyone has suggested that Obama is “retroactively complicit in torture”. If you actually have trials you can find out if the law was broken “or not”. Mind you, you’re just some “Jack” on the internet…

    And Jennifer, we allow abortion in this country but we don’t allow late procedures such as you describe. And why the sarcasm? Prisoners who have not even been tried, have been more than “slapped round a little”.

    I find it very strange that you both condone torture. Is this view widespread in America?

    Comment by steph | April 20, 2009

  30. Hey, Steph–i don’t condone torture. but the techniques described in the memos are not “torture.” I read all the memos, too. Just because you say they were torture does not mean they were torture. Obama has said that he believed that the three instances of waterboarding were torture but that the other 11 techniques even he says are not torture.

    Andrew Sullivan has suggested Obama is “retroactively complicit in torture. look it up.

    In any case, if it is torture, then Pelosi should be sent to jail. do you agree with that?

    Comment by Jack | April 20, 2009

  31. Jack, the memos DO describe torture according to the legal definitions in both U.S. law and in treaties (such as the Convention on Torture) we ratified. I don’t know if Speaker Pelosi or other Democrats are complicit enough to warrant jail, but I do think they should be investigated by the DoJ and IF they were complicit, yes they should be imprisoned, too. The Constitution says that treaties share with the Constitution the status of supreme law of the land.

    By the way, we now know that some of the waterboardings exceeded even the guidelines given in the memos. I believe that if we do not prosecute torturers and their authors, and we citizens do not DEMAND otherwise, we are all complicit. By the way, the final decisions on this are NOT Obama’s but that of the Department of Justice. In fact, one of the reasons AG Gonzalez and AG Mukasey were such BAD Attorneys General was that they allowed Bush/Cheney to dictate who would or would not be prosecuted. (Ashcroft was even worse.) So, Eric Holder is not bound by Obama’s views–and that’s how it should be in a nation of laws.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 20, 2009

  32. Jack: I meant nobody on this post. If Pelosi is found to be complicit in torture, yes. And I think from the sound of it, you condone certain forms of torture even if you don’t condone all.

    Comment by steph | April 20, 2009

  33. Michael–your post makes no sense whatsoever. You say that anyone who does not demand prosecution is complicit in torture. But then you say that Obama is absolved because it is all in the hands of Holder. So, are you implying that that Attorney General HOLDER is complicit in torture for not prosecuting the culprits. And that Obama is powerless to influence Holder?

    Actually, if Obama wanted to prosecute he could easily order Holder to do it, or find a more ACLU sympathetic attorney general to do so. So, by your own reasoning, Obama IS retroactively complicit in torture.

    Comment by Donald | April 21, 2009

  34. No, Donald, you misunderstand. I did NOT say or mean to imply that Obama is ABSOLVED from complicity if AG Holder (please God) prosecutes in spite of Obama’s attempt to close this off. I would still think this was a HUGE moral failure and failure of leadership on the part of Pres. Obama.

    I wouldn’t use the term “retroactive complicity,” but I think the legal term “accomplice after the fact” would apply to this kind of obstruction of justice. I think we are all complicit, if we let this go.

    My point for bringing up AG Holder was that if Obama continues to try to “look forward rather than backward” and thus let the torturers off the hook, he may not have the last word on the subject. Nor do I mean that he has no influence over his AG. But traditionally the office is supposed to be apolitical and supposed to be able to stand up to the president when he is wrong. Janet Reno, as Clinton’s AG, appointed several indep. prosecutors to investigate and try charges against him. I question some of her choices (Kenneth Starr had an ax to grind and went WAY beyond his mandate to investigate Whitewater), but not her decision to appoint an indep. prosecutor. I think Holder should do the same–regardless of whether Obama sees the error of his ways or not.

    I urge us citizens to make it politically hot for Obama to continue his refusal, too.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 21, 2009

  35. I think the biggest concern is the agents and operatives of the CIA could potentially hold the nation’s intelligence apparatus hostage. It’s the same “thin blue line” bit where we sort of give cops a free pass because we want cops to keep doing their jobs.

    It’s challenging because we want them to do their jobs, but we want them to do it right.

    Comment by Steven Kippel | April 21, 2009

  36. Steven, I would love to fire every rogue agent in the CIA. Reporter Seymour Hersch (of the New Yorker) even claims that he was told that Cheney had created an assassination squad that reported only to him. Its possible that those guys are still in place and have given veiled threats to Obama.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 21, 2009

  37. “Mind you, you’re just some ‘Jack’ on the internet.”

    And you’re just some “Steph.”

    Comment by Stephen | April 23, 2009

  38. Stephen: thank you for your valuable contribution to the discussion. Your one line personal attacks against me have been riveting.

    Comment by steph | April 24, 2009

  39. BTW Stephen, the reason I referred to ‘some Jack on the internet’ is because he had addressed Michael with unnecessry rudeness as ‘some guy on the internet’ but you obviously can’t see past your own obsessions…

    Comment by steph | April 24, 2009

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