Obama Orders Release of Secret Memos But Strongly Signals That He Will Block Any War Crimes Investigation

225px-official_portrait_of_barack_obamatorture -abu ghraibTo his credit, President Barack Obama has rejected efforts at the CIA and National Security Council to prevent the disclosure of memos detailing torture techniques. However, the statement below appears to lay the groundwork for a decision to block any investigation into war crimes. While insisting at we are a “nation of laws,” Obama seems to refer to enforcing those laws as acts of “retribution.” It is a position that is strikingly similar to the view of pro-Taliban leaders in Pakistan who have blocked war crimes prosecutions in that country. In the meantime, Attorney General Eric Holder has promised that no CIA employee who tortured detainees will be prosecuted. I discussed the memos on this segment of Rachel Maddow.

Holder’s anouncement further shows the obstruction of any serious investigation since the threat of prosecution is a critical tool used by investigators to gain cooperation from witnesses. It is also a curious position for the Attorney General who is saying that he will not allow people to be investigated for the commission of federal crimes despite his oath to enforce those very laws without political manipulation or interference.

Office of the Press Secretary
April 16, 2009

Statement of President Barack Obama on Release of OLC Memos

The Department of Justice will today release certain memos issued by the
Office of Legal Counsel between 2002 and 2005 as part of an ongoing
court case. These memos speak to techniques that were used in the
interrogation of terrorism suspects during that period, and their
release is required by the rule of law.

My judgment on the content of these memos is a matter of record. In one
of my very first acts as President, I prohibited the use of these
interrogation techniques by the United States because they undermine our
moral authority and do not make us safer. Enlisting our values in the
protection of our people makes us stronger and more secure. A democracy
as resilient as ours must reject the false choice between our security
and our ideals, and that is why these methods of interrogation are
already a thing of the past.

But that is not what compelled the release of these legal documents
today. While I believe strongly in transparency and accountability, I
also believe that in a dangerous world, the United States must sometimes
carry out intelligence operations and protect information that is
classified for purposes of national security. I have already fought for
that principle in court and will do so again in the future. However,
after consulting with the Attorney General, the Director of National
Intelligence, and others, I believe that exceptional circumstances
surround these memos and require their release.

First, the interrogation techniques described in these memos have
already been widely reported. Second, the previous Administration
publicly acknowledged portions of the program – and some of the
practices – associated with these memos. Third, I have already ended the
techniques described in the memos through an Executive Order. Therefore,
withholding these memos would only serve to deny facts that have been in
the public domain for some time. This could contribute to an inaccurate
accounting of the past, and fuel erroneous and inflammatory assumptions
about actions taken by the United States.

In releasing these memos, it is our intention to assure those who
carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from
the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution.
The men and women of our intelligence community serve courageously on
the front lines of a dangerous world. Their accomplishments are unsung
and their names unknown, but because of their sacrifices, every single
American is safer. We must protect their identities as vigilantly as
they protect our security, and we must provide them with the confidence
that they can do their jobs.

Going forward, it is my strong belief that the United States has a
solemn duty to vigorously maintain the classified nature of certain
activities and information related to national security. This is an
extraordinarily important responsibility of the presidency, and it is
one that I will carry out assertively irrespective of any political
concern. Consequently, the exceptional circumstances surrounding these
memos should not be viewed as an erosion of the strong legal basis for
maintaining the classified nature of secret activities. I will always do
whatever is necessary to protect the national security of the United

This is a time for reflection, not retribution. I respect the strong
views and emotions that these issues evoke. We have been through a dark
and painful chapter in our history. But at a time of great challenges
and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and
energy laying blame for the past. Our national greatness is embedded in
America’s ability to right its course in concert with our core values,
and to move forward with confidence. That is why we must resist the
forces that divide us, and instead come together on behalf of our common

The United States is a nation of laws. My Administration will always act
in accordance with those laws, and with an unshakeable commitment to our
ideals. That is why we have released these memos, and that is why we
have taken steps to ensure that the actions described within them never
take place again.

The refusal to allow an investigation by a special prosecutor obstructs the enforcement of these laws, including our commitment under treaties. Obviously, Obama and Holder cannot be charged with obstruction of justice for refusing to prosecute but they are obstructing the enforcement of these laws in violation of these international agreements.

For the latest on the story, click here and here.

96 thoughts on “Obama Orders Release of Secret Memos But Strongly Signals That He Will Block Any War Crimes Investigation”

  1. I tried to read every post above, so if I missed this subject no offence intended.

    What happened to the independence of the Attorney General?

    We heard a lot of that from Obama and Holder (BTW I voted Obama /Biden).

    Holder wanted to release the memos unredacted. Maybe to prosecute?

    So Obama overruled Holder?

    If so that is another error.

  2. Slartibartfast,

    The argument is logically sound, but not legally sound for the aforementioned Nuremberg defense (I was following orders) having already been discredited in Federal court. Due diligence does not excuse torture, rape or murder as any human with a conscience should know they are committing a prima facie illegal act under color of authority. But I am willing to accept the logical argument over the legal in this instance for one reason only – the pragmatic aspects of the intelligence community require that we employ a certain number of sociopaths. Why? Because every other intelligence agency in the world does. It takes a lizard to catch a lizard. They can be useful tools. But like any tool, they can harm when misused. That’s why I want the ones who misused them held accountable. Should this be a blanket immunity? Absolutely not. Any participant who strayed into murder and rape needs to be punished, be they CIA, military or civilian. A case by case review is merited where the most egregious defenders go on to face criminal trials. If you’ve followed the unfolding history here, I’ll think you’ll find the military has objected to this abuse of prisoners all along – sometimes more strongly than others. It is a well known fact that torture produces bad intel and that’s why these techniques are not part of the military’s standing practices on interrogation. And object or not, they followed their orders albeit under various degrees of protest. Given the limited options of legal protest available under the USCM, their participation should be reviewed on a case by case basis. This courtesy of a semi-blind eye to primary actors (as opposed to enablers – the ones I REALLY want hung from the neck), however, does not apply to the medical professionals who helped carry out said torture. They have a wholly seperate obligation to humanity and that is to “first, do no harm”. While imprisoning them for assisting in torture (absent murder or rape) and giving the torturers proper a walk is manifestly unjust, I don’t think removing their ability to practice medicine ever again is out of line for any of them.

    BTW, I really like your work. Fjords rock!

  3. Please do not forget that Blackwater is a group of displaced servicemen who had to get out of the military to make real money.

    The connection between Blackwater and the Republicans is extensive. The Brother that runs Blackwater is none other than Betsy DeVos’s own. And you ask who is Betsy DeVoss? She is married to Dick DeVos who owns AMWAY.

    Oh yes and I have the knowledge teacher. I can buy my way into a Covert Operation of the CIA without identification because I have money and You can’t trace it to me.

    I like that where else do you get paid to shoot people for fun and profit?

  4. I have been “reflecting”. I find this situation quite dangerous. We have a group of secret “interrogators” coming from within our own govt. and from outside contractors. We asked these people to torture. They hired their own lawyers who told them, if you want to go ahead make certain you get everything in writing from the govt. first, so you’ll be covered if you get indicted. After being told this, and upon being asked to engage in torture, this group of people said, “yes we’ll do it”.

    Now this group is left in place by the govt. Do we want our govt. leaving people who say “yes” to torture in place? If they said yes before, why should they say no now? We have a standing group of unnamed people who will torture if our govt. tells them to. Where does a standing group of immune tortures exactly fit in with democracy? That seems like a dangerous thing to me.

    I thought Jonathan made many excellent points on RM last night. I hope we will have the video of him soon. He said the best way to have a non-politicized situation is to appoint a career, impartial prosecutor who will follow the facts wherever they lead.

  5. Dear Jonathan,

    Every time I see you appear on MSNBC I know I am going to feel dreadful when your comments are over–not because I don’t agree with you, but because I do. I am a sixty-five year old white woman who has the greatest respect for our new president–but some of the decisions coming out of his Justice Department have me chilled to the bone.

    Raised a Goldwater Conservative–now a flaming liberal–I don’t know how a Constitutional scholar like Obama can countenance some of the latest Justice Department rulings. The President is an intelligent and subtle man, so I can only hope that there is a plan here not available to a mortal such as myself. But please keep speaking out, Jonathan–even if it feels as if you are crying in the wilderness. You have my greatest respect and admiration.

  6. Arrest Obama! He is Not the President!

    Obama is a War Criminal. He has been a War Criminal for several years in funding and waging Wars of Aggression. He should Not have been placed on the ballots. He should Not have been certified by the Congress. Obama should Not have been sworn in by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. These acts were unconstitutional, felonious and treasonous. Obama can be arrested at any time by the U.S. Government, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Spain, Germany, Britain, etc. for War Crimes and a multitude of other charges. Our political, civil and military leaders along with the mainstream media have perpetuated and built a “Big Lie” for years. It is on the scale that Hitler and the Nazis used to deceive the German people. Obama is one manifestation of that Lie.

    The list of War Criminals includes all those in Congress who voted to invade Iraq, those who voted to fund the war and the continuing occupation and all the political, civil and military leaders of America responsible for the illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have all conspired in War Crimes. Many of the people in Obama’s cabinet and in his administration are War Criminals. Very few in the Bush Administration and Congress are NOT War Criminals. They are murderous fascists!

  7. Prosecute them all. Do it on TV. Show it in Guantanamo cells. Show it on Al-Jazzeera. Show it in the gym, in the barber shop, in the dorm, in the lobby. Let’s all watch and feel and learn. Let’s all put ourselves in everyone’s place–the accused, the judge, the jury. Hear them out. Do us good. Isn’t that what courts are for? It’s what they were for, once, when citizens were the ultimate authority instead of directionless clueless passengers. And then we can decide what justice is, and what America means anymore.

    By the way, I’m imagining a jury of their peers. A bunch of hooded spooks who shrivel in sunlght. End the CIA. Harry Truman said he’d never have started it if he’d known it would become the American Gestapo.

    By the way, this idea of Obama’s that prosecuting war crimes is divisive and that we should instead look forward– ? There’s nothing divisive about uniting us in common defense of the Constitution. It’s the page we all need to be on. I saw a lot of tea baggers with signs about the Constitution, it’s not a right or left thing at all. To fail to defend our common ground — that’s the biggest fail of all. That’s where we lose America. Congratulations Osama, you win.

    And by the way, how about reopening the 9/11 investigation? The 9/11 report was based in large part on info spoonfed the commission by the CIA from tortured prisoners. And we might finally learn why the third building fell.

  8. I agree with BIL in that I don’t really care about the CIA torturers, I am more interested in the prosecution of the people who said that torture is legal (and if it turns out they were pressured to give opinions that legitimized torture – which I suspect is the case – then we should look at prosecuting them…). As a mathematician and a scientist I have a very different view of proof and evidence than most posters here as well as a far less nuanced understanding of the law than most of the posters on this blog, but it seems to me that the defense of “I was just following orders” is legitimate if these persons were told that the orders were legal by the justice department – thus doing their due diligence to verify that the orders were legal (and making the memos authored by the justice department even more egregious). This argument seems logically sound to me – is it legally sound, or am I missing something?

  9. Well said Mespo. While I am upset that the people who carried out the torture may not be charged, I have always been more concerned with the big fish in this pool. Bush, Cheney and the rest of the cabal that ordered and authorized the torture is who I am after. Maybe the CIA operatives are being protected because they will be “singing” for the Justice Department in an upcoming investigation of who authorized the torture. Could this just be an immense plea bargain?
    One more thing. Mark, the CIA is not charged with the duty of protecting the President. That is the Secret Service’s job.

  10. Patty C:

    I find there are all types of tribunals in life and all sorts of ways to make people suffer punishment for wrongdoing –a lot of it is self-imposed. By blocking prosecution Obama may be doing these torturers the greatest of disservices by denying them the right to confess their “sins,” in public. I do not believe them to be psychopaths and there is only so much rationalizing one can do to ease a guilt ridden conscience–the perceived crimes of your victim notwithstanding. They may never face a formal judge and jury but I find guilt to be the most relentless and degrading jailer of all. Oscar Wilde said it best, “It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.” The president has foolishly denied them and us this benefit. These torturers have made away with nothing:

    “If he has a conscience he will suffer for his mistake. That will be punishment-as well as the prison.”

    –Fyodor Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment)

  11. mespo727272 1, April 16, 2009 at 7:35 pm


    Well if screaming helps you win an argument in your world go ahead. I am disappointed by this statement but I am not sure it closes the door on investigation or prosecution of the officials who instigated, supported,implemented and hid this vile program. I don’t think the final whistle has sounded, and I’ll wait and see. I think you’ll find gloating is much more fun when the game is over, and not prematurely in the fourth quarter.

    Thank you. I just logged in to see what you had to say…

    I didn’t take Obama’s statement as ‘Game Over’ either.
    That is also what JT led with on ‘Rachel’ just now
    – sort of. Obviously, Leon Panetta doesn’t see this as the end of the road, either.


    CIA Videos Predated Bush Legal Memo

    “There are questions as to who was authorizing what for the CIA before August,” Singh said. “Those facts need to be made public and that’s why we need to have an investigation.”

  12. By not prosecuting Bush and his cohorts has Obama not negated every federal law? If a president can pick and choose which laws to follow then by god so can i and everyone else.

  13. mark:

    Well if screaming helps you win an argument in your world go ahead. I am disappointed by this statement but I am not sure it closes the door on investigation or prosecution of the officials who instigated, supported,implemented and hid this vile program. I don’t think the final whistle has sounded, and I’ll wait and see. I think you’ll find gloating is much more fun when the game is over, and not prematurely in the fourth quarter.

  14. FFLEO,

    The truth is most of these CIA “interrogators” did get there own legal opinion and were told their actions were illegal. That is why they got the DOD and DOJ to sign off on their every move (which was in fact done). I have sympathy for grunts in Iraq who had no place to go and they tortured people. But for the CIA I have none. These people could have quit their job anytime. A grunt can’t leave a theater of battle but these people could. So not only could they have quit as soon as they were asked to torture, they did not. Instead, they went to the lawyers to see how they could torture, keep their jobs, and not get nailed for it. That is evil.

    One of the memos shows the DOJ clearly knew they were basically pulling shit out of their butts and that no court was likely to agree to their “interpretations” of the law. That is evil also.

    The highest evil is reserved for those who conceived the idea and asked for ways to torture and have no consequences–bush and cheney. Then the man that protects them, obama. He is clearly an accessory to torture and if the detainees at Gitmo are proven correct (and I believe them) he has allowed torture under his presidency. A pox on them all.

Comments are closed.