Opinion Torturing for America

Barack Obama has released memos detailing torture methods approved by the Bush administration but has stopped short of punishing the perpetrators. His decision puts the US to the kind of test it has not seen since Vietnam or Watergate.

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What should a president do about the crimes of his predecessor? Barack Obama had been "thinking about this for four weeks, really," says his advisor David Axelrod.

The issue seems straightforward enough. What the CIA did to prisoners on behalf of the administration of former US President George W. Bush and its appalling legal advisers during the so-called "war on terror" was torture. And torture is a serious crime, not just in the United States, but almost everywhere else in the world. The next steps seem obvious enough: indict the guilty and send them to prison, end of story. Why, as one European legal expert put it, would anyone need to think about it for four weeks?

Amnesty International protesters outside the White House mark President Obama's 100th day in office.
AFP

Amnesty International protesters outside the White House mark President Obama's 100th day in office.

Good old Europe. The answer that the president of the most powerful and oldest democracy on earth must provide could not only devastate him, but could tear apart that very same democracy. His courageous and yet half-hearted decision to release the previous administration's torture files, and to call the practice by its real name and to ban it -- while at the same time forbidding, or at least postponing, the punishment of the perpetrators -- puts the nation to the kind of test it has not seen since Vietnam or Watergate.

It will be a more difficult test this time. Past infractions at the highest levels of government were treated as the lapses of individuals. After the Watergate scandal, then-President Richard Nixon was promptly pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford. Former President Bill Clinton, after perjuring himself in the Monica Lewinsky case, was dealt with in impeachment proceedings. The Vietnam War spawned a large number of half-hearted military trials of those involved in massacres committed in the name of freedom.

But Obama is faced with problems on a completely different scale. The entire Bush administration -- the attorney general, the national security adviser who went on to become secretary of state, the secretary of defense and top officials at the White House, even the former president himself, without a doubt -- all were involved. The broadest level of involvement was among second-tier officials: government lawyers who broke the law by issuing opinions on the permissibility of "alternative" interrogation methods. Finally, there was the host of torturers, whose activities on behalf of the government have been described in countless studies by American journalists and civil rights experts, as well as in reports by human rights activists.

Tacitly Participated in Torture

The crimes are not limited to the government. Lawsuits that victims of torture are now filing against the government's facilitators in private industry suggest the broad extent to which the nation is burdened with the stench of torture. Even the aircraft manufacturer Boeing has been sued for damages, because a Boeing subsidiary allegedly arranged flights to the CIA's so-called "black sites."

The grim practices were no secret. In fact, the perpetrators openly ridiculed the public's indignation. After signing a memorandum authorizing extreme interrogation techniques at Guantanamo, including forcing detainees to stand for hours on end, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld scribbled at the bottom of the document: "I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?"

It was not a conspiracy committed by a handful of people. Many Americans tacitly participated in the torture. After all, it was the president himself who gave the go-ahead for treating the victims in such a way, when he said: "The only thing I know for certain is that these are bad people."

The torture virus eventually infected the rest of the world, including Europe and even Germany. The double standard employed by German counterterrorism personnel when confronted with the torture practices of their US allies becomes clear in a remark Ernst Uhrlau, the head of the BND, Germany's foreign intelligence agency, made in a 2007 interview with SPIEGEL: "US officials have (…) explained to us that the information they gained from various interrogations worldwide has been instrumental in preventing further attacks and uncovering terrorist structures. So we have benefited from all this in the sense of preventing attacks and understanding the structures of the network."

German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble also found it difficult to distance himself from the use of dirty information, saying that it was perfectly legitimate for German officials to use information foreign intelligence agencies had obtained through torture -- after all, that helped prevent terror attacks. At the same time, Schäuble was apparently unwilling to consider the possibility that this might also apply to American intelligence agencies: "The president has made it clear that there is no torture. I have no reason to question that."

They are all involved. Respected human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International had already released reports on the issue at the time when Schäuble feigned ignorance. Hardly anyone felt the need to point out the grave injustices that were apparently being committed in the shadows of the American war against terrorism. When Wolfgang Kaleck, a German attorney, sought criminal prosecution charges against Rumsfeld and other US officials on behalf of several plaintiffs, Germany's federal prosecutor's office rejected the suit on ludicrous grounds. One of the arguments against Kaleck's suit was that the prosecution of torture had to be treated as an internal matter for the US.

The entire world looked the other way when the United States committed a crime that the world had previously committed itself to outlaw and punish. Under the 1984 United Nations Convention against Torture, ratified by most countries in the world, each state pledges to impose drastic penalties for the cruel treatment of prisoners -- and to ensure that not only those issuing the orders, but also the torturers themselves, are brought to justice. The cruel and degrading treatment of prisoners is also banned under the Geneva Conventions. Today even US legal experts no longer question that the Geneva Conventions also apply in the war against al-Qaida and other terrorist groups. The Geneva Conventions obligate all nations to try torturers and those who issue their orders, if apprehended, or to extradite them to a country willing to do so.

The Bushies knew perfectly well why they withdrew the US signature from the International Criminal Court (ICC) statute. If the United States had subjected itself to the ICC statute, the court's unflinching prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, would undoubtedly have petitioned for the issuance of arrest warrants against Bush and his cohorts long ago.

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