President Barack Obama on Tuesday morning backpedaled on statements made by members of his staff in recent days about who wouldn’t be prosecuted for torturing foreign prisoners during the Bush administration.
Last week, Obama said the CIA interrogators who actually dispensed the brutality would be spared from prosecution because they were merely following orders. Then, this past weekend, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said the president didn’t want the high-level architects of the torture policy prosecuted, either, and Obama spokesperson Robert Gibbs cemented that position on Monday in a briefing with reporters, saying the president wanted to move forward.
Criticism was swift. In particular, Democratic U.S. senators such as California’s Dianne Feinstein and Rhode Island’s Sheldon Whitehouse said Obama was being way too quick to let bygones be bygones, especially in light of an ongoing probe, by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, into the conduct of the lawyers who OK’d torture.
There are two likely reasons for Obama’s desire to sweep torture under the rug after releasing explosive Bush-era legal memos justifying the practice: politics and etiquette. Certainly, Obama doesn’t want a shrill partisan battle distracting attention as he pursues his domestic-policy agenda, and his post-partisan mantra needs the occasional Republican vote.
But this isn’t what we had in mind when we voted for change. We wanted the country’s elite to stop getting away with it, and we wanted the right thing done no matter the political repercussions.
More important than that, however, is the bright light that a court case can shine on otherwise shadowy government behavior. It’s possible that the interrogators who brutalized detainees would beat the rap because they were following orders, but why not threaten prosecution to get them to flip on higher-ups and then work up the ladder of command? It’s possible that, in the end, nothing significant sticks, but through investigation, deposition, discovery and testimony, the public would likely learn a hell of a lot about who did, said, decided and ordered what amid the Bush administration’s willful deviation from U.S. law, acceptable wartime behavior and common human decency.
Of course, our first choice is for high-level people to pay for their crimes, if indeed crimes were committed, but we’d settle for the byproducts: a view behind that dark curtain and a message to the rest of the world that says the United States of America cleans up its messes and holds rogue elements accountable.
That second outcome is what made Obama’s original position so hypocritical. On Monday, when he was explaining to employees at the CIA why he publicly released the torture memos, he said, “I believe our nation is stronger and more secure when we deploy the full measure of both our power and the power of our values, including the rule of law.”
So, then, his original stance was: We’ll show everyone some evidence of alleged U.S. and international crime, because basic humanity and the rule of law are somewhat important, but we’ll stop short of making anyone pay for it because we’re too busy moving forward.
That’s not a very robust example to set for the rest of the world, when what we want to see is other countries follow our lead on lofty concepts like freedom and justice.
Obama should have seen the criticism coming a mile away, but we’re glad it didn’t take him long to reverse course.