Searching for a Strategy Obama Trips Over Bush Torture Legacy

US President Barack Obama had thought he could clean up the Bush administration's questionable human rights legacy on his own terms. Recent decisions regarding Abu Ghraib pictures and military tribunals show that he was mistaken. His message of "change" is at risk.

By Hans Hoyng, Britta Sandberg and Gabor Steingart

There are precisely 44 photos that put the national security of the United States of America at risk -- not quite four dozen images that threaten the lives of soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are images that are best kept from the global public.

Barack Obama is having trouble escaping the troubled legacy left him by the administration of George W. Bush.

Barack Obama is having trouble escaping the troubled legacy left him by the administration of George W. Bush.

US President Barack Obama has seen them. And last week, addressing reporters on the South Lawn of the White House, he decreed that they should be kept under lock and key. The images, he said in his brief yet firm address, could "reignite" anti-American sentiments.

Apparently the photos are horrifying, even worse than those from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, made infamous by the first batch of torture images published in 2004. Some depict US soldiers driving a tank toward shackled prisoners, leading them to believe that they are about to die. Others show soldiers standing over the corpses of Afghan men. There is one photo of a soldier holding a pistol to the head of a shackled and hooded prisoner.

When the Abu Ghraib torture photos (a fraction of those taken) hit the headlines five years ago, they triggered a wave of anti-Americanism in the Arab world, but the revulsion was almost just as strong in Europe and back home in the US. The incident contributed greatly to the humiliation of the world's oldest democracy -- a worldwide beacon of freedom that had allowed islands of lawlessness and inhumanity to exist within its jurisdiction.

Disgraceful Chapter in American History

The photos that the Obama administration now wants to keep from the public apparently depict even more reprehensible, repulsive and inhumane images. There are allegedly photos of rape, of female prisoners being abused and sexual violence being committed against an underage male prisoner.

After viewing the photos, a member of the US Congress said that publishing them would inevitably spark new demands for an investigation into these atrocities.

Of the 44 photos documenting a disgraceful chapter in American history, 21 were taken at US military bases in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is not yet known where and when the other 23 photos were taken. They are part of the legacy of the era of former President George W. Bush, a legacy current President Barack Obama promised to clean up, consistently and without reserve. But now he is gradually distancing himself from his campaign promises, taking what Obama supporters -- in Europe even more so than in the United States -- see as a tempered, lackadaisical and disappointing approach to the noxious legacy of the Bush administration.

The president took his decision under the pressure of time. Had he not acted, the 44 photos would have been released next week as per an order from a New York court. It was a decision the White House had originally approved. But the timing of the release would have been problematic -- the images of rape and torture would have conflicted with Obama's travel plans. On June 4, Obama plans to give a keynote address in Cairo in which he intends to unveil a plan of reconciliation with the Muslim world. The legacy of the Bush era includes an us-versus-them mentality from which Obama seeks to distance himself, and which he has already begun to reverse.

There are other serious reasons for Obama's controversial decision not to release the photos, especially the reasons cited by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. As the only member of the previous administration Obama brought into his cabinet, Gates is considered above suspicion and incorruptible. He is the eminence grise on Obama's team.

Just Like Bush

Responding to the concerns of military commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates argued that releasing the photos could endanger US troops there. His position was sufficiently compelling that the president, despite the New York court's ruling, decided to reverse himself, announcing that he would oppose the release of the photos -- just as Bush did.

It was a week of surprising twists and turns in Washington, perhaps even marking the beginning of a gradual disenchantment with this president, who came to the White House armed with good intentions. But the arguments of the military and intelligence community are difficult to ignore.

The administration reached its controversial decision on Wednesday. At the same time, it was rumored that the US government was intervening in Great Britain, threatening that its intelligence agencies would cease to cooperate with their British counterparts if a court in the United Kingdom decided to proceed with a public inquiry into torture methods. Again, it was a position not unlike that taken by Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush. If a case pending in London's High Court leads to the release of documents concerning a former British Guantanamo detainee, the revelations could be embarrassing to the Americans. And if the court does proceed with the case, the public will learn what interrogators contracted to the US government did to the detainee. In a letter to British officials, Washington threatens that if the trial were to come to pass, US intelligence agencies would "necessarily have to review with the greatest care the sensitivity of information we can provide in the future."

It was an unusual step between such close allies. But then, on Friday, Obama took yet another step into the past when he announced that he plans to continue the controversial system of military tribunals his predecessor had introduced to try prisoners at Guantanamo.

Living Up to the Promise of Change

Ironically, the president who came into office vowing to free the United States from the taint of double standards is now tainting his administration with the notion that, as president, he is not going to keep the promises he made on the campaign trail.

On the day after his inauguration, Obama instructed the Pentagon to close the detainee camp at Guantanamo Bay within one year. It was time for America, he said, to operate from a position of moral strength once again. His words sounded good and were consistent with the expectations he had raised during his campaign. In his first few days in office, it seemed that Obama was determined to live up to his promise of change.

Guantanamo is more than a prison camp. It is a legal vacuum based on the principle that the end justifies all means in America's "War on Terror." Today we know that the prisoners there were subjected to torture. We know that the CIA flew its most prominent prisoners to other locations, where methods such as waterboarding -- simulated drowning -- were employed in the hope of gaining valuable information. And we also know that the Pentagon hired a private firm to develop a manual for its harshest torture methods.

Individual elements of these zones in which the rule of law has only limited applicability are now likely to remain in place. Obama, as he has repeatedly stressed, is not "naïve."


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