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.
Von Hans Hoyng, Britta Sandberg und 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.

Foto: AFP

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."

The Swan Song of 'Change'

This means that US forces can continue to hold terror suspects without charge at the Bagram prison camp in Afghanistan. It means that the CIA's interrogation specialists will no longer face the prospect of criminal prosecution. And the government lawyers who issued briefs in which they declared the torture methods to be legally acceptable can likely expect little more than slap on the wrist.

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.

Foto: AFP

These revelations, though, represent no less than the swan song of "change," the mantra of President Barack Obama.

The series of about-faces has been the source of turmoil in Washington with Republicans and Democrats now accusing each other of endangering US national security and the lives of American soldiers. The president's fellow Democrats are using their majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives to prevent him from bringing so much as one of the remaining 240 Guantanamo prisoners to the United States. In response, Obama noted -- unsuccessfully -- that he could hardly convince other countries to accept a few of the detainees as long as his own country remained unwilling to do so.

Nothing is easy for Obama these days, not even the closing of Guantanamo. Of the roughly 770 prisoners once incarcerated there, about 500 have already been released without charges and sent back to their native countries.

Experts have divided the remaining 240 prisoners into three groups. The first group comprises 50 to 80 detainees whose releases have in fact been approved but who cannot be flown back to their native countries, because they are likely to face torture or other forms of persecution there. They include 17 Uighurs who the Obama administration has asked Germany to accept.

Release Not an Option

For the detainees in the second group, there is insufficient evidence for a trial. Nevertheless, they are considered sufficiently dangerous that releasing them is not seen as an option. In discussing the possible transfer of detainees to the United States, Attorney General Eric Holder said: "We are not going to do anything that will endanger the American people."

The third group comprises prisoners who could be put on trial, in principle. However US federal courts could decline to hear such cases because detainee confessions were made under torture. This hurdle was one factor in the assessment by Obama's legal advisors that military tribunals may offer the only solution to the dilemma.

Last Friday, the president cited a less convincing reason to retain the tribunals when he said in a statement: "Military commissions have a long tradition in the United States." It was, however, exactly such traditions Obama intended to abandon. But he also ordered that the tribunals be suspended for four months to allow the Pentagon to revise its procedures for the trials at Guantanamo.

One of the likely conclusions of this review is already clear: The tribunals will no longer allow as evidence all information obtained from the prisoners during extreme interrogations. In addition, the defendants will be given greater latitude in the selection of their defense attorneys, and they will be permitted to refuse to give potentially self-incriminating testimony.

These are improvements, and yet they are a far cry from the Obama administration's original promises.

"We are currently experiencing the continuation of a three steps forward, four steps back strategy," says attorney Scott Horton, an advisor to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is suing for the release of the 44 torture photos. "Obama is simply afraid that the torture debate will overshadow everything else, and that's something he desperately wants to prevent."

The ACLU has already seen to it that four torture memorandums written in 2002 and 2005 were released: documents aiming to provide legal backing to the dubious interrogation methods applied after Sept. 11, 2001. According to Obama's closest advisors at the White House, the president spent four weeks agonizing over his decision regarding the memos.

Not Far Enough

At the time, many advisors warned the president not to release the documents. Perhaps he did so because he still believed that he could keep his promise of transparency. The release did in fact unleash a debate over torture and responsibility, partly because Obama went only halfway, promptly announcing that those members of the intelligence community responsible for the torture would not be prosecuted. Fellow Democrats, who would like to see George W. Bush put on trial, criticized the new president for not having gone far enough.

Meanwhile, Obama's critics in the Republican Party argued that he had gone much too far. Since then, hardly a day has passed without former Vice President Richard Cheney, speaking in his sonorous voice, coolly warning against new terrorist attacks. His aim is preventive, implying that if al-Qaida were to launch another attack on US soil it would be the fault of this president, Barack Obama.

Cheney has been passionate in defending what he calls "astonishingly successful interrogation methods," as if sleep deprivation and waterboarding were indispensable elements of American conservatism.

A Strategy to Leave Bush Behind

It has not been forgotten, however, that many members of Congress were informed about the new treatment of terror suspects at the time, and that they did not raise any objections. Nancy Pelosi, the now-powerful Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, was also present at a September 2002 CIA briefing on the interrogation methods. But she now claims that she was not aware that waterboarding was being used.

Obama probably believed that he could more effectively control the public debate over the past and roll back the veil more systematically. But that was an illusion and a mistake that could prove to be a serious miscalculation. He too is haunted by the failings of the superpower. And Obama, as cool a strategist as he is, still lacks a convincing strategy.

What should he do? The president has a few options. He can appoint a special investigator to examine human rights violations during the Bush administration. But that could trigger something Obama wants to avoid: a heated debate that could divide America in the midst of the most severe economic crisis in many decades, a division that could ultimately become deeper even than the one that split the country during the Iraq war.

The alternative would be an investigative commission that would look into what happened at Guantanamo, Bagram and elsewhere and propose how to deal with those responsible. The United States took the same approach with the Iraq war, when a panel of respected Republicans and Democrats subjected the war to a general review.

Obama the strategist will have to come up with something to leave behind the Bush legacy.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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