In his first week in office, US President Barrack Obama signed an order banning the practice of torture in America, giving rise to speculation over whether he would prosecute members of the Bush administration who had advocated, justified and finally ordered torture of prisoners both at home and abroad.
Last Thursday, that speculation increased when the White House released the infamous “torture memos” by which Republican lawyers justified the use of torture against “high value” detainees.
The torture memos would be shocking if we hadn’t heard it all before. Most famously they justified waterboarding, the euphemistic name for what the Holy Inquisition called “tortura de agua,” or water torture, whereby a prisoner is placed on a board and dunked until he believes he will drown.
Victims report terrible pain, panic and fear of death. We’ve all heard of this, and of the practice of shackling prisoners in excruciating “stress positions,” and depriving them of sleep, sometimes for days on end.
Another memo justified the practice of repeatedly slamming a prisoner into a wall. The only thing new, to this reader at least, was the curious business of tying prisoners up in a dark cell and pelting them with caterpillars masquerading as poisonous insects. In light of their content, Obama’s statement that these memos demonstrate that America had “lost (its) moral compass” during the Bush years sounds remarkably mild and diplomatic.
In an inexplicable development this week, Obama visited CIA headquarters to assure agents that none of them would face prosecution for having employed these practices. The question now cries out to be asked, having staked out the moral high ground on torture, why let the people off who actually carried out these acts?
Following Obama’s rally-the-spooks speech, he was pressed to say whether this declaration of impunity flowed uphill, to the lawyers who wrote the memos, and on up to the politicians who authorized it, whereupon he let slip that a bipartisan commission of enquiry is not out of the question. That is to say, torture during the Bush days will get a similar level of investigation as was awarded to the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.
The 9/11 commission of enquiry was politically hamstrung. It failed miserably to get to the bottom of the security failures that allowed the attacks. It had no mandate to investigate the decades of foreign policy that helped to create al-Qaida. It made no statement regarding Bush’s opportunist use of a great national tragedy to advance an aggressive agenda that would finally claim hundreds of thousands of lives. It was, in effect, a whitewash.
While it may seem odd that Obama would defend Bush, Cheney et al, there are reasons for Democrats to tread with caution when it comes to investigating war crimes, especially those associated with torture. One of the foulest and best known practices of the Bush gang was a little nicety called “extraordinary rendition,” by which the CIA was authorized to ship prisoners to client states to be tortured. While renditions became much more common after September 11, they were first permitted by the previous president, Democrat Bill Clinton.
A number of Democrats in Congress were made aware of the torture memos when they were issued, and raised no objections to them, at least in public. Come to that, when Bush was re-elected in 2004, the millions who voted for him knew, or should have known, that US soldiers who beat, humiliated, tortured, sodomized, urinated on and murdered, prisoners at Abu Ghraib were acting on instructions to “soften them up,” orders which were traceable to the office of Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
It will be hard to find a clean pair of hands to sift through the brutalities of the Bush years, but they will have to be found. The US will never rid itself of the burden of these crimes until it investigates them fully and prosecutes those responsible.
In the likely event that the trail leads all the way to Bush and Cheney, they cannot be exempted from prosecution. But neither can the agents in the field who carried out the orders. Sixty years after Nuremberg, will Obama really exonerate CIA agents because they were only following orders?
Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.