Obama's in a box with torture
Obama's United States doesn't do torture, a principle he established and clearly stated on day two of his administration. Yet here he is, not yet at day one hundred, and torture is an issue which is causing him increasing damage.
Obama's troubles began earlier this month when he sanctioned the release of four memos in which Bush administration lawyers had given legal advice explaining that, for the purposes of interrogating suspected terrorists, exercises like waterboarding and headbanging (the head of the prisoner; against a wall) were pretty much OK.
It was also permissible to put Abu Zubaydah into a small box. And it was fine to put an insect in that box. It might be even better if Zubaydah, supposedly a former big noise at al-Qaeda who apparently fears insects, were wrongly to infer that the insect could sting, perhaps kill. But what would not be right or proper or legal or "within the statute's required predicate acts" would be to tell Zubaydah that the insect could do him harm (which, of course, it couldn't).
The best course, for a CIA man in a hurry, would seem to be to put Zubaydah in the box, drop the insect in there too, say nothing and wait for the screams.
President Obama may have no problems with insects but his room for manoeuvre is severely restricted. When the president ordered the release of the CIA memos it was in the belief that legal action by the American Civil Liberties Union would soon lead to their emergence anyway. He hoped swiftly to put the matter to rest and then "move the country on" as he put it, avoiding the distractions of partisan rancour.
What's happened is the Republican party has accused him of betraying national secrets and undermining the CIA while the liberal wing of his own party is pressing for a full blown truth commission. Their aim is to call to account the Bush administration lawyers who gave "enhanced interrogation techniques" legal cover.
Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee and one of the most respected figures on Capitol Hill, told me: "I don't agree with people who say let's turn the page if we haven't taken time to read the page. We can learn from our mistakes."
He mentions the Watergate hearings and how they left America "a better country". President Obama might feel a chill at that, recalling that America was also riven and demoralised after its Long National Nightmare of the early '70s.
The affair gives us our first glimpse of how the new, activist president runs things. We're told by the Washington Post that he chaired a night time meeting of officials both for and against letting the memos out before reaching his decision. He'd earlier sent a bipartisan deputation to the CIA to ask how the techniques had been applied. They were shocked at what they heard.
One of them, the former chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, David Boren, described the CIA briefings as "one of the most deeply disturbing experiences I've had... I wanted to take a bath... I was ashamed."
The release of the memos, at this point, looks like a political blunder which the president could have easily avoided. Perhaps they would have emerged - just as photographs of "enhanced interrogations" will soon be released (another ACLU legal action - this could be Abu Ghraib with knobs on) - but Obama didn't need to issue the order himself.
George Bush was criticised for being a lazy president, he delegated and sat back, preferring to clear brush down in Crawford. Barack Obama is, yet again, Bush's opposite. He's super busy, ever on the move, doing. Will he stand condemned for doing too much?