Mission Accomplished

President Barack Obama appears to be endorsing the Bush administration’s larger mission — to turn the American presidency into an elected monarchy. By refusing to enforce the laws against torture, he not only violated his oath of office; he joined George W. Bush in declaring that CIA operatives can commit crimes with impunity, provided that a government lawyer gives them a permission slip.

In so doing, Obama has embraced a new version the old Adolf Eichmann defense of following orders — “my lawyer said I could do it.” Do not try this at home. According to our current president, only Justice Department lawyers can secretly authorize the commission of crimes.

Thus, in an August 2002 memo, Justice Department lawyers John Yoo and Jay Bybee clinically described a long string of cruelties that the CIA planned to inflict on Abu Zubaydah, an al Qaeda terrorist. Then they calmly explained why these cruelties would not, alone or in combination, constitute torture. No “reasonable man,” the lawyers advised, would expect to experience “severe physical or mental pain or suffering” — of the sort that would “shock the contemporary conscience” — from anything the CIA planned to do, with the possible exception of waterboarding. But even that would not be illegal, so long as the CIA did not really intend to drown the fellow. As proof of the agency’s good intentions, Justice Department lawyer Steven G. Bradbury cited plans to have a doctor standing by to perform a tracheotomy, if necessary, to open a victim’s windpipe before he choked to death.

The officials who planned these war crimes and the agents and doctors who carried them out knew exactly what they were doing. With Eichmann-like efficiency, they specified every step, while Justice Department lawyers and White House officials conspired to pardon them in advance. All the conspirators knew these practices were war crimes, but President Obama has now instructed his Justice Department not to prosecute those who carried out the CIA’s interrogation protocols. That is not a case-by-case exercise of prosecutorial discretion by an independent Justice Department; this is a wholesale obstruction of justice by the White House.

During August 2002, CIA agents waterboarded Abu Zubaydah 83 times. In March 2003 they waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times, contradicting an earlier claim, now recanted, that once had been enough. But in 2005, a year after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, Steven Bradbury secretly ruled that repeated waterboarding, even on this scale, does not constitute torture. It is not even cruel, he wrote, because being held down and nearly drowned does not cause “severe” pain. Nor is “prolonged” psychological harm likely to result from being nearly drowned 183 times.

After reviewing these depravities, Leon E. Panetta, Obama’s CIA director, tried mightily to keep them secret. When that failed, he persuaded the president that the agents were just doing their “duty.” He did not explain how the CIA’s torturers differed from the young soldiers who went to jail for abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib, or why CIA interrogators should escape punishment for doing what their Communist counterparts did to American captives during the Korean War.

By choosing not to prosecute the agents, the Obama administration has endorsed the Nixon-Bush-Cheney principle that law is optional whenever national security is alleged to be at stake. Yes, the president says, torture is bad policy, but it need not be criminal, so long as Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., takes care not to enforce the laws against it. Holder’s lawyers even oppose allowing former prisoners to sue their torturers, because government torturers work for the “sovereign,” and the sovereign cannot be sued without his consent.

We know why the Democrats are adopting Republican tactics. When push comes to shove, there is nothing that career politicians of either party won’t trade away for short-term political advantage. At the moment, Senate Republicans are blocking confirmation of Obama’s appointees until he promises not to prosecute Bush & Co. for their war crimes. Meanwhile, congressional Democrats have an expensive agenda to enact, so they are willing to trade away what’s left of our constitutional government to get their program passed.

One has to wonder if these compromising politicians ever pause long enough to ask themselves: “What will my children think of me when they read about this decision in their history books?”

Christopher H. Pyle teaches politics at Mount Holyoke College and is the author of Getting Away with Torture: Secret Government, War Crimes, and the Rule of Law (Potomac Books, Inc., June 2009). Read other articles by Christopher, or visit Christopher's website.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Phil said on May 14th, 2009 at 1:19pm #

    Read about this decision in their history books? Don’t make me laugh.

  2. Michael Hureaux said on May 14th, 2009 at 5:06pm #

    They’re absolutely useless. I liked to think last election season that in electing Obama, we would get a refresher course in hard experience why the “democrats aren’t about shit, but the silence remains deafening. At some point, we’re going to get tired of seeing how much pain we can take, but who knows when that will be?

  3. Mulga Mumblebrain said on May 14th, 2009 at 5:31pm #

    Torture is as American as apple-pie. The ‘water cure’ as it was known with that gift for sadistic euphemism that psychopaths so often display, was widely used in the Philippines as the US put down the liberation struggle with massive force, mass murder and racist brutality. The practice was introduced by veterans of the Indian Wars from the infamous Seventh Cavalry. No doubt its antecedents are even further back in time. In Vietnam we had Operation Phoenix, with its mass torture, assassinations and ‘disappearances’, and the practice of ‘pump and dump’ ie torture until death, then dispose of the body. Then there were the torture schools and torture manuals for military and police then unleashed on their home countries in Latin America, Africa and such stalwarts of pro-Americanism as Suharto’s Indonesia.
    The purpose of torture is not to obtain information. Any information so obtained is clearly suspect with the victim prepared to say anything to cease their torment. Torture is all about intimidation, as in Israel’s decades of mass torture to demoralise and traumatise the imprisoned Palestinians, the recruitment of Quislings and informers, another Israeli speciality, and to slake the sadism of the psychopaths who practise it. I mean, water-boarding 183 times!!!I bet they sold tickets. I’d wager that Cheney had a video prepared, for his personal entertainment, and that of his croneys. That Obama has turned a blind-eye to this psychopathic savagery comes as no surprise, although a practised dissembler and confidence-trickster really ought to have come up with something less embarrassing than the ‘ We must look forward’ excuse. Imagine if the Nazis had used that exculpation at Nuremberg.Pure moral imbecility.

  4. Chris Ringwood said on May 15th, 2009 at 10:49am #

    Ah yes, the covert American Monarchy. A logical progression from the equally covert American Empire; and the epitome of rabid hypocracy. Something the U.S has made a sin qua non of being American these days. I suspect that Obama is presently imbibing a few too many heady drafts of !!!!POWER!!!!
    Fairly normal unfortunately: Godhead remains permanently out of Man’s reach…”Thank God”!
    As this grubby little tale illustrates, the control of USG by the neocons remains adamantine, to the extent that the latter’s modus operadi – imported from the mother country – maintains both infiltration and control, via key personnel placements, in the key corridors of American Government.
    Once more, the term Hypocracy writs large since such methods were de riguer for the Nazis, and THEIR Role Model, the Russian Soviets: both camps our real and percieved enemies…

  5. HR said on May 16th, 2009 at 4:23pm #

    There were a fair number of the over-worshiped founders who supported a monarchy, and much debate on how to “properly” address the President. The royalist mentality seems to be carrying the day, now more than ever. I shudder every time I hear Hail to the Chief or see red carpets laid out for our “representatives”. Even pseudoprogressive web sites caution folks to use “proper respect” when addressing elected officials, most of whom deserve no respect whatsoever, sold-out corporatist scum that they are.