Obama’s Growing Torture Record

Nat Hentoff

When he was not yet president, Barack Obama insisted: “To build a better free world, we must first behave in ways that reflect the decency and aspirations of the American people. This means ending the practice of shipping away prisoners in the dead of night to be tortured in far-off countries” (foreignaffairs.com, Summer 2007). He was referring to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-directed “extraordinary renditions” that, during the Bush administration, did indeed send terrorism suspects to countries known for torturing prisoners. The CIA told the foreign interrogators what sort of information to extract and how to go about it: by any means necessary. (That was also the standard in the CIA’s own secret prisons.)

President Obama did not follow through on his pledge. The New York Times reported (August 24, 2009): “The Obama administration will continue the Bush administration’s [renditions] but pledges to closely monitor [the prisoners’] treatment to ensure that they are not tortured.”

As I and other reporters, here and abroad, have documented, the monitoring has been illusory. (See my column, “Mr. President: We Are Still Torturing?,” cato.org, July 16, 2009.) In addition to the renditions (my column “U.S. ‘Black Hole’ Prison in Afghanistan,” wnd.com, July 26, 2011), “some . . . ‘detainees’ have been killed during ‘coercive interrogations’ at a principal U.S. prison [at Bagram Airbase, Afghanistan] inmates call ‘the black hole” (BBC News, April 15, 2010).

During all the widely covered debates among Republican presidential aspirants, I have neither seen nor heard any comments on Obama’s continuation of Bush-Cheney torture policies. And with limited exceptions, Democrats in Congress have also remained loyally silent. Nor am I aware of any significant follow-up to this grim disclosure of Washington’s complicity with the Afghan government in horrors there.

Even though the following was in the October 30, 2011, Washington Post, how many of you have seen it? The headline was “U.S. Had Advance Warning of Abuse at Afghan Prisons, Officials Say.” Long before the United Nations disclosed what it describes as “systematic torture” in detention centers (a familiar euphemism) run by Afghan intelligence agencies, leading officials at the Obama State Department, the CIA, and our military “received multiple warnings” about abuses at such Afghan interrogation centers including Department 124 in Kabul, where the torture of up to forty-two terrorism suspects has been so appalling that “one detainee told the UN that it has earned another name: ‘People call it Hell.’”

President Obama receives daily intelligence briefings up his chain of command. Was he shielded from the fact that, despite these warnings about what was going on at these Afghan-run prisons—to which other countries stopped sending their detainees—we went right on doing the following (again, quoting from the Post story): “U.S. Special Operations troops delivered detainees to Department 124.” And (get this), “CIA officials regularly visited the facility, which was rebuilt last year with American money.” Just while the president was trying so earnestly to curb U.S. deficits?

If you can believe Afghan officials, they maintain that those CIA visitors never, ever participated in the torture, “but should have known about it.” As far as I know, there are no blind CIA agents.

Here we get deeper into Obama’s accountability for torture, although no one here is officially trying to hold him accountable. The Washington Post reminds us of—as if the great majority of Americans ever knew about it in the first place—“the Leahy Amendment” that “prohibits the United States from funding units of foreign security forces when there is credible evidence they have committed human rights abuses.”

But our official lying gets worse: “American officials denied that they had ignored credible warnings of detainee abuse and said that whenever such an allegation was raised, they took action.” Added the second-ranking American commander in Afghanistan, Lt. General Curtis M. Scaparrotti: “Anyplace that we’ve had a concern in the past, we’ve taken the appropriate steps, and we’re taking the appropriate steps now.” I’ve seen no evidence of that.

And dig this: these American officials engaged in righteous denying, citing as an example of their taking remedial action that “General David H. Petraeus, the former top commander (in Afghanistan), ordered a halt to detainee transfers to Afghan intelligence and police custody in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in July.”

So why are CIA officials still regularly visiting the dreaded Department 124 (aka “Hell”)? If they’re not torturing anyone, what are they doing there? For one thing, they’re not stopping the torture. As for General Petraeus, he took off his army uniform as soon as President Obama appointed him our present director of the CIA. As the boss there now, whatever reservations Petraeus may have about unlawful CIA activities are classified, like all else regarding the CIA.

Here we come to the most stunning Obama administration abdication of responsibility for torture and other war crimes. I regularly click on the University of Pittsburgh website’s “Jurist” link for a wide range of remarkably penetrating legal analyses. On November 5, it ran: “Combat Immunity and the Death of Anwar-al-Awlaqi,” by Morris Davis of Howard University School of Law.

It was Davis, then chief prosecutor of the Guantanamo military commissions, who in 2007 shocked the Bush administration (and me) by resigning that globally controversial command to protest the Bush administration’s allowing the use of evidence extracted by torture in those Gitmo proceedings. Davis also publicly criticized growing Washington interference in the operation of the military missions. He went on to be the executive director and counsel of the nongovernmental Crimes of War Education Project in Washington, where he works to “enhance global public awareness of international humanitarian law [and] highlight violations of the laws of war” while also teaching at Howard University.

What Davis carefully documented has, of this writing, been largely ignored in the media, by the current presidential campaigners, and by Congress. I am trying to spread this vital exposé of the rampant illegality of ongoing CIA activities (approved by Obama) as widely as possible. Davis concentrates on the Obama-CIA killer drone program, but his analysis also applies to other CIA involvements with the military—from “extraordinary renditions” of terror suspects to be tortured in other nations to their presence in Department 124 in Afghanistan. His main finding is that in a number of its collaborations with the military, the CIA violates the law of war “because it is a civilian institution, lacking combat immunity.”

That’s why Petraeus no longer wears his military uniform. Davis explains that “generally, the deliberate killing of another human being is considered murder unless some legal justification provides immunity. The law of war does just that by extending immunity to lawful combatants who kill in the course of armed conflict, provided that they comply with the law of war.” But the CIA, a civilian agency, does not have that combatant immunity.

Davis continues: “A primary objective of the law of war is to limit the effects of war, particularly the effects on civilians and civilian objects. A fundamental law of war principles is distinction, which mandates uniform and other distinctive markings to clearly denote combatants. The U.S. undermines the law of war by blurring the intended bright line separating combatants from civilians. The ability to bend the law to what we want it to be at any given moment diminishes us and our commitment to abide by the proper rule of law. That is a failure in leadership.”

Will this failure of both presidential and congressional leadership be raised during the 2012 presidential and congressional campaigns? If I had a farm, I wouldn’t bet it on this happening.

Nat Hentoff

Nat Hentoff is a United Media syndicated columnist, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and the author of, among other books Living the Bill of Rights (University of California Press, 1999) and The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance (Seven Stories Press, 2004). His latest book is At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene (University of California Press, 2010).


When he was not yet president, Barack Obama insisted: “To build a better free world, we must first behave in ways that reflect the decency and aspirations of the American people. This means ending the practice of shipping away prisoners in the dead of night to be tortured in far-off countries” (foreignaffairs.com, Summer 2007). He …

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