Will President Obama Take the Next Step to Reverse Bush’s Policy on Torture?
by Habib Siddiqui
If there is one way to measure how a person might fare in a new job, a sure thing is to check him or her out after a few days. For the President of the USA it is 100 days. Why 100 and not 30 or 60? No one really can answer satisfactorily. But that is how it is with the topmost job in the USA – that of the President. Well, so how did President Obama fare in the first 100 days of his presidency? Is he the right man for the job or did the voters pick the wrong guy?
Experts tell us that by most measures Obama has done a great job. Of course, the economy is still far from recovery. However, if you look at what he inherited from Bush and Cheney – an avalanche in Dow Jones industrial average trading at 14,269 from its peak in October, 2007 to almost half its value when Bush left the White House in January of 2009 you ought to feel a little bit encouraged with how Obama is handling the crisis. But probably the most important thing he has done is reversing Bush’s torture policy declaring that it was wrong. He has decided to release more memos and photos on torture.
As expected, not everyone welcomes such a decision. Last month, when asked about the Obama administration’s plan to release more photos of terrorist detainee interrogations, Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House, said, “I think that is a sick, anti-American behavior.” He ought to feel ashamed and not just sick because it was his Republican party that had run the government when the torture of detainees took place, in violation of international laws. By releasing those photos what Obama is doing is nothing short of being a true American that craves for transparency and honesty in government.
As Jacob Weisburg of the Newsweek has so bluntly and aptly put, “The use of torture on suspected terrorists after 9/11 has already earned a place in American history’s hall of shame, alongside the Alien and Sedition Acts, Japanese internment during WWII and the excesses of the McCarthy era.” It was five years ago that most Americans came to learn what was going on inside the Abu Ghraib prison. The New Yorker magazine and the CBS TV showed hooded prisoners standing on a box with wires attached to their hands and genitals; frightened prisoners attacked by mean dogs; soldiers punching restrained prisoners; piles of naked prisoners stacked into a pyramid; prisoners forced to simulate sexual acts, often with grinning GIs on hand to point and offer a jaunty thumbs up.
For many simpleton and naïve Americans, those pictures were simply unbelievable. They sounded as if they suffer from amnesia – a selective one in that – or cognitive dissonance. They had assumed the best from their government that was led by a Church-going ‘born-again’ Christian. To them, their great nation had been setting standards for higher moral grounds everywhere, for everyone. They simply could not accept the fact that their best-trained soldiers had failed them by committing those horrendous crimes.
Those who knew better were embarrassed. They had been caught off-guard red-handed, almost like a thief caught with a hand in the cookie-jar. They had to be hypocritical. Within days, President George W. Bush offered a public apology for “the terrible and horrible acts.” Even his unabashed secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, took “full responsibility” for the scandal and promised that the offenders would be brought to justice because the victims “are human beings. They were in U.S. custody. Our country had an obligation to treat them right. We didn’t do that.” [As Americans later found out such words did not mean anything.]
And then there were guys like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter who justified such crimes. Limbaugh said “what went on over there is not torture.” According to him, the abuse was “no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation” and that the American soldiers were “having a good time” as part of their “emotional release.” If you think that his was a lone sick, demented voice, you’re mistaken. Senator James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, claimed to be “more outraged by the outrage than … by the treatment.” In CNN’s Larry King Live show Ann Coulter claimed that all normal people who have ever had a sibling, been through a fraternity hazing, or been on a sports team or misbehaved with small children have experienced water-boarding.
Fortunately, most Americans do not fall into any of the above three categories. They were genuinely repulsed by what they saw and what they read over the next few years, thanks to investigative reporters like Seymour Hersh. They learned that more harsher and demeaning torture methods were employed by American soldiers and interrogators, not just in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay but in all detention camps and centers. Torture methods included water-boarding, raping, urinating on detainees, throwing phosphoric acid, continuously hitting with metal batons on injured limb, sodomizing with batons, tying ropes around genitals and dragging the detainees on the floor, and even killing detainees. Truly, there was hardly a torture method—considered illegal by the Geneva Convention and scores of international laws—that was not committed by those guards and interrogators, disgracing America’s image abroad.
Americans found out that the Bush Administration had lied to them, not just with the rationale for the war itself, but also with torture. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and Gonzales had actually authorized harsh torture methods. They knew what was going on in those prisons and detention camps. And then there were many top advisers like Wolfowitz, Feith, Cambone and Tenet who knew all along what their guys were doing to those prisoners. Americans also found out that Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee, who had authored the torture memo that provided the basis for violating international laws, was rewarded in 2003 by President Bush with a judgeship at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
It was this public revulsion with Bush’s torture policy that made sure that today guys like Inhofe are a small minority in the Congress. Americans are demanding that those who authorized torture be punished. However, much to the embarrassment of most Americans, none of the top guys has yet been convicted or tried. In what appeared to be a mockery of justice, only the foot soldiers - seventeen in total - were convicted in courts martial in 2004-2005. Of these, most were sentenced to low term prison terms, and dishonorably discharged from service. Two soldiers, Specialists Charles Graner and Lynndie England, were sentenced in 2005 to ten years and three years in prison, respectively. Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, who denied knowledge of the torture, was demoted to the rank of Colonel in 2005. She maintained that her superior Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez had authorized the use of military dogs, temperature extremes, reversed sleep patterns and sensory deprivation as interrogation methods in Abu Ghraib. The ACLU claims that General Sanchez had authorized interrogation techniques that were in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions and the Army’s own standards.
As stated earlier, President Obama has taken the first step in dealing with this disturbing episode of torture by reversing Bush’s policy. He must now order congressional hearings and perhaps an independent commission to probe the matter further so that never again this country is misused by government officials soiling its image. Pursuing criminal charges against all those who authorized torture would be a moral victory for America and help her to be taken seriously by the international community who had only seen hypocrisy from the most powerful nation on earth. Is President Obama ready for taking the next step?
[About the author: Dr. Siddiqui writes from Pennsylvania, USA. He has authored seven books and co-edited one, three of which are now available from the Amazon.com.]