Ben Buchwalter

Bush Legacy Lives On Through State Secrets

A large part of Barack Obama’s campaign message of change was his promise to reverse Bush administration policies regarding torture and state secrets. Since he was inaugurated a year ago, we’ve seen Obama dial back those promises one by one. In December, the American Civil Liberties Union and the US Government faced off before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco regarding five civilians who were detained illegally and transported overseas with the help of Boeing subsidiary Jeppesen Dataplan and subjected to harsh interrogation tactics. I attended the hearing and wrote this report for MoJo:

At the Mohamed et al v. Jeppesen Dataplan hearing, both sides were equally dramatic. Arguing on behalf of the plaintiffs, the ACLU’s Ben Wizner warned that if the court endorses the government’s sweeping claim to secrecy, “it will do tremendous harm to our democratic principles.” Representing the United States, Douglas Letter doubled down on the government’s assertion that simply allowing the case to be heard would result in the disclosure of classified information that could harm national security….

Under US law, the executive branch can request that a lawsuit be thrown out if it would make public information that could endanger US interests or personnel. In a declaration of support for the government, former CIA director Michael Hayden said [pdf] that the case would expose information that “could be expected to cause serious—and in some instances, exceptionally grave—damage to the national security of the United States, and therefore, the information should be excluded from any use.” Letter argued that courts should defer to such leaders’ judgments about national security. Wizner disagreed, maintaining that the lawsuit could proceed with guidelines to keep truly sensitive information secret. If the judiciary “just went with the executive branch,” he said, “there is no role for this court.”

Wizner argued that the government has not been consistent in its treatment of these matters. Though the CIA claims that it cannot confirm nor deny its contracts, “they do so routinely when it suits their interests,” he pointed out. Earlier this week, for example, CIA spokesman George Little gave specific information about the infamous military contractor Blackwater Worldwide. “At this time, Blackwater is not involved in any CIA operations other than in a security or support role,” he told the New York Times.


Holder’s Proposed Torture Probe: Worse Than Doing Nothing?

August 10, 2009

One of the reasons Democrats were so excited to see Obama in the Oval Office was that he has pledged to demand some accountability for government officials who participated in torture under the Bush administration. But even after Obama’s first few months, it became deafeningly clear that his torture initiatives would be even more toothless than expected. In August, Attorney General Eric Holder caught fire when he proposed a torture probe would not target the authors of the so-called torture memos or Bush administration officials who knew what was going on. Instead, the probe would only hold accountable those soldiers who went beyond the interrogation tactics approved by the Bush administration. I reported the response of the human rights community for MoJo. Here’s an excerpt:

Opinions were divded among human rights and civil liberties groups about the merits of this approach. On the one hand, Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, thinks that a probe that lets the authors of the interrogation policies off the hook would be more destructive than constructive.  “An investigation that focuses only on low-ranking operators would be, I think, worse than doing nothing at all,” he told the Los Angeles Times….

But Gabor Rona, the international legal director of Human Rights First, is more optimistic about the proposed inquiry. He agrees that the investigation should not be confined to low-level interrogators because “if we end up having scapegoats as responsible people instead of those who authorized and solicited torture, then it would be an abdication of our international legal responsibility.” But he thinks it would be possible to start with those who overstepped the rules of interrogation and cast a wider net later—that is, if federal investigators follow where the evidence leads and investigate accordingly.

Torture Confirmed by ICRC Report
November 16, 2009, 9:25 am
Filed under: Civil Rights, Crime and Justice, Talking Points Memo | Tags: , ,

March 16. 2009

Barely two months into Barack Obama’s presidency, there remained very few historical accounts proving that the Bush administration authorized torture for its War on Terror. In mid-March, a journalism professor and New Yorker contribute added one of the most complete historical accounts of torture to date in an article for the New York Review of Books. Danner wrote about a confidential report he obtained from the International Committee of the Red Cross that listed, in detail, the torture techniques used on three suspected terrorists, Abu Zubaydah, Walid Bin Attash, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who currently awaits his civilian trial in New York City. I summerized Danner’s piece in a post for TPMmuckraker. Read my synopsis for some of the details about the horrific torture methods used against Zubaydah, Bin Attash, and KSM. Here’s the kicker:

Danner came to a few key conclusions after reading the ICRC report: most importantly, the Bush administration approved torture in its questioning of al Qaeda suspects as early as 2002. And everyone in the administration, including President Bush, knew it was happening.

Danner says that it is unclear exactly how successful these tactics were in gathering key information about potential terrorists. But one key comment from Khaled Shaik Mohammed indicates that the information is worthless. In the worst moments of torture, Mohammed says he “gave a lot of false information in order to satisfy what I believed the interrogators wished to hear in order to make the ill-treatment stop.” This information undoubtedly “wasted a lot of their time and led to several false red-alerts.”


As President Obama announces his directive to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility within a year, a clear sign that torture will not be allowed under his administration, Senate Republicans continue to show support for torture. 

Senator John Cornyn (R TX) has delayed the confirmation hearing of Obama’s Attorney General pick, Eric Holder, because of Holder’s declaration that “waterboarding is torture” and that officials who authorized such torture under the Bush administration could be tried.  

Senate Republicans are also opposing Obama’s environmental choices. Says David Kurtz (emphasis mine):

Think about it for a minute. This is the Republican Party circa 2009: pro-torture and pro-global warming. This is what they’re staking their claims on. And willing to obstruct a wildly popular new President in the midst of not just a national economic crisis, but a convergence of international crises of which economic collapse is just one.

Democrats should take this and run with it and run hard. If the GOP wants to be a remnant party of dead-enders usually found in the backwoods of Idaho, go for it. But Democrats need to remind the American people of this over and over and over again, no matter how self-evident it may seem now.

This is a chance to shape a generation’s perception of the opposition, and I say that fully cognizant of how that power can be used and misused. Dems are riding high now, and its easy at this moment to dismiss the GOP. But they do so at their own peril. The GOP is reeling, on its heels, flailing desperately for how to retain its relevance and political viability. Now is when you seize the advantage and hammer these points home again and again and again.

Even if this is only an effort to provide resistence against something that Obama is trying to accomplish, it seems incredibly short sighted and will only villanize Republicans further.

Somehow, even after everything they have done in the past 8 years, it is shocking to me that the Republican Party would choose to brand itself as the party that condones torture and shuns science.

Friday Brain Dump

I don’t have much to say about much, so I’ll say a little about much. General thought for this week: hearing Obama’s cabinet choices calling torture torture and confirming that science is real highlights the perverse deviance of the opposite opinions.

  • Obama Attorney General choice Eric Holder unequivocally declares that “waterboarding is torture.” Also that “no one is above the law,” even the President and DOJ officials apparently. That’s change we can… you know. BarbinMD of Daily Kos and Todd Beeton of MyDD for more. CIA, on the other hand, still likes torture. 
  • In an interview with the Washington Post, Obama says that he will work to reform Social Security and Medicaid, the long-lasting but endangered loves of the Democratic Party. 
  • I really think that Obama is going to engage in talks with Hamas. He says he will form a team to deal with the Gaza situation on day one and that discussions can’t “be solved in isolation. And we’ve got to be active in all these areas in order for us to be successful in any of these areas.”
  • It looks like the GOP is going to challenge some of Obama’s cabinet picks. Really? At the end of the day, these picks are going to pass. It turns out that no one cares that Geithner screwed up his taxes, the benefits of Holder outweigh his lack of judgment in pardons a decade ago, and Daschle is, well, I don’t really understand what their problem is with him. I’m not saying I’m against solid debate, but hullabaloo for the sake of hullabaloo is tiresome. And we’ve got other things to focus on.
  • I’m getting excited for the innagural address. Did you know it’s during the day? Lamesauce. Hello Obama! Peeps gots to work!
  • Stimulus plan bigger than many expected. Way to go Obams. Rep Bohner (lol) says OMG

Pretty Much Sums it Up
January 16, 2009, 7:07 am
Filed under: Republicans, Scandals | Tags: , , ,

Visit this Slate page for a diagram of the Bush Presidency.

Guantanamo Bay to Sing Fat Lady Song

Watching 24 definitely makes you think about the morality of torture in a fictional world. But as a liberal in the real world, is it possible to enjoy 24 despite its implicit support for terrorism? This week’s season 7 premier proves the answer to be yes, but AmericaBlog asks this difficult question.

Wherever you land on that important issue, it is difficult to deny that by far the most horrendous legacy of President Bush’s two terms is the torture at Guantanamo Bay that was not only approved by the President, but became de-facto law. AmericaBlog reports that Obama will announce his plans to close Guantanamo after he is inaugurated on January 20. This does not mean that the detention facility will close immediately. President-elect Obama has already said that it could take a year to finalize the end of Guantanamo Bay because of the deeply complicated nature of international law and the difficulty of placing the 250 terrorist suspects, many of whom have not been charged with any crime, in an appropriate setting.

Although it is not soon enough, this is an extremely encouraging development that says a lot about the Obama administration. First, the United States no longer supports torture. Throughout the campaign I was surprised by how few times Obama, Biden or other democratic surrogates mentioned torture. Under the leadership of George W. Bush, this country that has stood as a beacon and freedom for so many across the world for hundreds of years, embraced torture as national policy. The reality of that is both terrifying and deeply sad. Though closing Guantanamo Bay does not make up for that, it shows that we are at least willing to admit this error and attempt to rebrand our moral image.

It will be interesting to see how Obama closes the detention facility. Back in November, the newly elected Obama unveiled plans to pursue out-of-the-box methods of prosecuting terrorists. They endorsed a “hybrid approach” which would combine necessary aspects of military courts with the liberties associated with civilian courts. As I wrote back in November, Republicans oppose this approach because it could bring terrorist suspects to US soil, and Democrats are weary about it because these suspects would not receive all the rights guaranteed for American citizens. For that reason, the plan is constitutionally unstable and, if implemented, would probably require the Supreme Court’s attention.

The closing of Guantanamo Bay also indicates, as AmericaBlog writes, “that Team Obama is starting to realize that it needs to reach out to the left, and not just the right.” This is the third issue that surfaced in the past few days on which Obama has made statements that satisfied the liberal base of the Democratic party.

But the meaning of closing Guantanamo Bay seriously transcends politics. It shows that Obama might make good on the hope that he inspired during his campaign to begin a process that re instills pride in our country.

In an interview with The Atlantic this week, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the internationally acclaimed peace activist, spoke of his disappointment that the United States now uses torture.

He must close Guantanamo Bay immediately. That must be one of the first things he does. You know, for someone who comes from South Africa, it is one of the greatest letdowns I’ve ever experienced that America, Britain, whom we had regarded as—I mean, they were our starlode. Or is it lodestar?

Hoo hoo! Yes, our lodestar. These countries were so insistent in the days of apartheid. When we had detention without trial in South Africa, they condemned it out of hand. I mean, it is one of the greatest letdowns that these countries should, without batting an eyelid, be using the same arguments that were used by the apartheid government. You feel so, so despondent.