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Obama's in a box with torture

Peter Marshall | 09:53 UK time, Monday, 27 April 2009

President Obama is in a quandary. He's put himself in a box comparable to the one the CIA designed for Abu Zubaydah.

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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?


  • 1. At 11:07am on 27 Apr 2009, barriesingleton wrote:


    Zimbardo's Stamford Prison Experiment, documented in the aptly titled book: 'The Lucifer Effect' makes clear that men in positions of power will abuse the helpless.

    America has a 'power complex' - state abuse will surely follow - whether physical, psychological, or even monetary!

    We KNOW how awful we are at being human, but we live out our lives as barely more than embryonic, and wisdom is only to be found in the mature. Being nasty is easier and more fun.

    Obama is not saint not sage, he is a charismatic (animal) lawyer-mind having a ball but at what cost?

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  • 2. At 1:38pm on 27 Apr 2009, JunkkMale wrote:

    Still early days and, being fair, a lot of legacy to deal with.

    So I am cutting slack still.

    However, in light of the benefits we are getting closer to home from one pathologically and so far disastrously unable not to meddle with everything, some of what's behind that final para sets up more red flags than a whole new labour website concept.

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  • 3. At 3:44pm on 27 Apr 2009, metric tonne wrote:

    I wholeheartedly disagree that Obama was wrong to release the memos. The Republican's will bluster and complain about the whole thing damaging national security; but crucially the world will see that Obama is willing to stand by his "no torture" policy. If he hadn't released the memos the world would have thought that just like his predecessor, he would say "no torture" but then redefine what was torture so they could do it anyway. By releasing the memos he underlines the fact that he has said no torture by also saying that what happened under Bush was in fact torture and wouldn't be condoned in this administration.

    Even better would be if someone very senior got prosecuted over this. Either the lawyers or someone senior in the old administration or CIA. That way people in the future might think twice before allowing a trigger happy administration to break international law in such a systematic way that downgrades the ability of America to preach democracy and the rule of law to the rest of the world.

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  • 4. At 4:17pm on 27 Apr 2009, anthonyinhove wrote:

    Peter Marshall displays the same failure to think strategically that the previous administration displayed. Obama sees the longer-term gain from being open about renouncing torture, and trying to re-establish a reputation for the USA as a respectable nation. The craven policy advocated by Mr Marshall would have avoided some short-term criticism, but would have done nothing good for the USA's reputation.

    The folly of torture is the same as the folly of bombing a village because there is one terrorist in it. For the short-term gain of killing one terrorist, you lose the war by making enemies of the people. It is the same with Guantanamo. Short-term thinkers believe it saved lives, long-term thinkers see that it cost far more lives by hugely reinforcing Al Quaida's appeal for new recruits.

    Mr Marshall would do well to have more respect for President Obama's judgement. After all, it has got him quite a long way in the last year and a bit.

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  • 5. At 4:27pm on 27 Apr 2009, affront wrote:

    Can we all agree that torture, just like war, is a very bad thing? It was very bad that so many innocent French civilians - women, children and men - were killed during operation Overlord. But it was, unfortunately, a necessary part of the liberation of Europe from the Nazis.

    We are no longer fighting a 'war on terror' but it's certainly true that our adversaries are terrorists. The game they play is based on terror - killing innocent civilians as a means of winning the war.

    If we're to beat them, we need to play them at their own game. (It's no use playing them at a different game - a first class soccer team can't beat a first class basketball team). Their own game is based on terror and it's not possible to support human rights while at the same time using terror to win the game.

    This is pretty obvious isn't it? We can ban the use of torture and terror if we're happy to allow terrorists to get their own way. Yes, yes, I know some will say 'we can all live in peace together' but that's just nonsense, isn't it?

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  • 6. At 4:51pm on 27 Apr 2009, sizzler wrote:

    As a lawyer I can see the sense in releasing the memos, they would have have dragged on for years and it was a boil the US needed to lance. I also agree reluctantly with not prosecuting the interogators and officials. It would come down to a jury deciding whether or not US soldiers and CIA officers should obey orders from a democratically elected Whitehouse that conflicted with either their personal morality or opinion of the meaning of terms in the geneva convention. That is not a precident we should set in law, we should trust these matters to individual officers and their superiors in the circumstances. Nevertheless, I do believe that every officer and official in this case showed poor judgement and an inability to properly exercise the power they had.
    I'm well paid because I have to exercise good judgement in all the circumstances. If I get it wrong I get sacked. They got it wrong. Sack them.
    In my opinion Obama has been pragmatic and returned the US to the moral path. Isn't that what he was elected to do.

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  • 7. At 5:02pm on 27 Apr 2009, eighteenseventyeight wrote:

    People were tortured as an attempt to provide a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq, which ofcourse there wasn't. There were no WMDs found in Iraq so the Bush, Cheney administration authorised a CIA torture programme to justify their war on terror. Tortured people tend to say exactly what their torturers want them to after a while, hence the appeal to the likes of Pol Pot, Mugabe, Stalin, Pinochet, Bush.

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  • 8. At 5:21pm on 27 Apr 2009, El Galloviejo wrote:

    According to al-Usa's President Obama legal logic, if a criminal act such as, for example, violating the law, was committed in the past, it will NOT be prosecuted.

    That also means that If a criminal act was NOT committed in past, it CAN be prosecuted.

    Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and torture.

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  • 9. At 6:05pm on 27 Apr 2009, bakomi wrote:

    Obama has realised that the US cannot lecture others on moral behaviour if it hides its own falls from grace
    His dilemma now is to justify the trial and sentencing of junior ranks at Abu Grave prison whilst the originators of the policies and procedures which authorised their acts of torture and humiliation go unpunished

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  • 10. At 6:25pm on 27 Apr 2009, daringMo wrote:

    Where and how did the CIA learn how precisely to torture muslim men? Who are the current experts in this field?
    President Obama has fulfilled a crying humanitarian need in releasing the memos. Let us hope that we all learn the whole ugly truth, and let us revere the President for his courage.

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  • 11. At 7:50pm on 27 Apr 2009, bookhimdano wrote:

    torture is a stupid bet. you bet that through pain [psychological or physical] you will obtain something of value. the evidence is you don't. so torture is more about people who like inflicting it? Because what rational and reasoned individual would torture a human being? So it falls to those who are irrational and unreasoned to do it? Which demonstrates where the belief it works comes from? The unthinking subconscious.

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  • 12. At 11:35pm on 27 Apr 2009, dyers75 wrote:

    Peter Marshall has, I agree with dave_h , failed to see the long game that President Obama is playing, if it means that a wider and growing number of faces are shamed then so be it, what other way does he have of taking America back to something truthful. If Nancy Pelosi and many others were complicit to some degree or other then that is the price they pay for not standing up for what was right, if they were not conflicted then the fallout should be accepted. President Obama is showing the world and all those up on Capital Hill that he is seriously determined to make America shiny and bright again - to wait for the details to be brought into the public domain by a third party would have only led to more criticism and censure of America. It is a shame that newsnight have cast in his decision in the shadow of an error in judgment when reporting tonight.

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  • 13. At 10:41am on 28 Apr 2009, U13912239 wrote:

    Peter Marshall's 27 April blog entry is a fine piece of reporting.


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  • 14. At 1:06pm on 29 Apr 2009, davep01 wrote:

    Whether prosecutions follow or not (and I'd prefer action against those who authorised torture rather than the sickos who performed it), I can't fault Obama on the release: better to take a lead rather than waste months protecting secrets whose secrecy isn't even in the new administration's interests. There's nothing to be lost by exposing all of this stuff: most people are smart enough to distinguish between then and now, and the whines of a rabble of GOP diehards aren't worth worrying about. There's still plenty of potential mileage in the Presidential honeymoon, and it's better to start spilling the beans rather than face a less impotent opposition in future when official silence on the previous Administration's excesses has given it time to regroup.

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