Obama Calls Waterboarding Torture, But Refers to Bush Policies as “Mistakes” and Bad “Techniques”

220px-barack_obamatorture -abu ghraibCivil libertarians were a bit disappointed again in President Barack Obama’s press conference on Wednesday. While he reaffirmed that he views waterboarding to be torture (a well-established legal fact), he repeatedly referred to what the Bush Administration did as a “technique” of interrogation and a “mistake.” I discussed the Obama press conference and the torture issues on this segment of Rachel Maddow. I will be discussing these issues again on tonight’s Hardball.

Obama reaffirmed that “waterboarding violates our ideals and our values. I do believe that it is torture. . . . “I believe that waterboarding was torture. And I think that … whatever legal rationales were used, it was a mistake.” The use of terms like mistake cause international law and civil liberties advocates to object. Obama routinely avoids calling torture a crime. This is like a president who routinely avoids calling torture a crime. Both are demonstrably and undeniably crimes. To call torture “a technique” would be like a president saying that terrorism is a poor “technique of political expression.” These are crimes.

Clearly, this matter is in the hands of Holder. However, the reluctance of Obama to call torture a crime is an obviously intentional pattern of speech. Calling torture a crime does not prejudice the investigation of Bush officials — any more than calling terrorism a crime generally prejudices a case against those facing terrorism charges.

He then referred to torture as a “short cut”: “But I am absolutely convinced that the best way I can do that is to make sure that we are not taking short cuts that undermine who we are.”

What was also strange is that Obama was asked why he has filed extreme claims under state secrets doctrine in court. He insisted that only about a week after taking office, he was forced to make a decision and was not ready to modify that doctrine. The excuse simply does not track. Obviously, the Justice Department could have asked for more time before filing. What civil liberties attorney would deny the Administration a chance to review a doctrine in order to possibly withdraw claims? Certainly any court would give the Administration that chance. Instead, Obama is seeking to extinguish a variety of lawsuits as his lawyers debate whether they will make a change. That is a very convenient line of argument: you kill the cases that would expose the illegality of past programs and then reject or modify the claims used to terminate those cases.

For the transcript of the press conference, click here.

For the full story, click here.

30 thoughts on “Obama Calls Waterboarding Torture, But Refers to Bush Policies as “Mistakes” and Bad “Techniques”

  1. “Question: Thank you, Mr. President. You’ve said in the past that waterboarding, in your opinion, is torture. Torture is a violation of international law and the Geneva Conventions. Do you believe that the previous administration sanctioned torture?

    The question is clear and actually the reporter, is for once, calling attention to the fact that torture violates international law and the Geneva Conventions. I will add that it violates US law. Obama proceeds to redirect the actual question, about the law, into an argument on morality. Of course no one would be criminally investigated for a moral choice alone. So we have reduced a clear legal matter to a morality play and policy difference.

    The fact that Cheney is morally comfortable with torture and Obama says he is not is irrelevant. The fact that Cheney believes torture is effective and Obama says he does not believe this is also irrelevant. This shifting of the argument on torture as a crime into the realm of effectiveness/values needs to be called what it is-propaganda. He is also narrowing torture to waterboarding when in fact, the definition of torture goes well beyond waterboarding.

    This statement was also interesting:
    “We have rejected the false choice between our security and our ideals by closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay and banning torture without exception. This statement is playing fast and loose with both words and reality. The Center for Constitutional Rights lays out the reality of Gitmo and detainee rights at its website. There have also been consistent, credible reports that torture continues at Gitmo to this day. The CCR points out that even the techniques allowed in the AFM still amount to torture. So this statement is not accurate although it is repeated frequently by the administration.

    Yesterday, Judge Garzon went ahead and appproved investigations into our war criminals. This isn’t just embarrassing, although it is that, it shows how untrustworthy the US is the eyes of other nations. I’m certain many people overseas believed that Obama would take immediate action on war crimes. When he did not, they waited to see if he would. The answer; no. Now another country has stepped forward to do what we should be doing. Holder has given little indication that he intends to investigate. In fact, the sum of both Obama’s and Holder’s actions/words show neither of them have any intention of investigating war crimes.

    As to the claim of state secrets. Holder affirmed that his DOJ’s arguments were the Obama DOJ’s position. He affirmed this to a court of law. Was he lying to the court? They just lost a round in the Jeppeson Dataplane case yesterday (see ACLU website). If they appeal this case, it will be one more, of many examples where Obama, who also said it would be necessary to vigorously protect state secrets, shows that this is his administrations’ policy, not just Bush’s.

  2. Jill,

    This just came off of a new feed I get:

    Detainees Can Pursue Suit Against CIA
    by: Carol J. Williams
    The Los Angeles Times

    The US government cannot avoid trial by claiming the state
    secrets privilege in the lawsuit brought by ex-Guantanamo
    detainee Binyam Mohamed and four others, who allege they
    were tortured.

    The president cannot avoid trial of a lawsuit brought by
    five former CIA captives, who allege they were tortured,
    by proclaiming the entire case a protected state secret,
    a federal appeals panel ruled today.

    Both former President George W. Bush and President Obama’s
    Justice Department lawyers had argued before federal
    courts that a lawsuit brought by former Guantanamo prisoner
    Binyam Mohamed and four others should be dismissed in the
    interests of national security.

    Maybe this is where it is heading. If you build a firm base properly it will take a long time to stave off and have criticism directed back at you.

  3. A.Y.

    The firm base against the indiscriminate and unlawful use of “state secrets” has been built, not by Obama and his DOJ, but by civil liberties groups, in this case the ACLU. There isn’t a way to stave off criticism in a political arena. It’s part of the job to handle it. A leader is a person that has the courage of her/his convictions. This means they are willing to take heat for a decision. There is nothing in this world that everyone will agree on. That’s why a leader has to have strong priciples and courage. If a president isn’t willing to take on critics that person should never have tried for the job in the first place. War crimes are a matter of both principle and law. They clearly violate our law and it takes a strong, principled character to do both what is right and what is clearly legal. Yesterday we read about a man who risked his life trying to save two children. May not a political leader risk his re-election to bring justice and uphold our Constitution?

  4. Watched the entire press conference last night and to me there was nothing inconsistent with my take on President Obama’s strategy in this. The reporter’s question was designed to elicit a headline and the President was too smart too bite. See the latest polls of citizens opinions on the efficacy of torture and you understand the problem. People have to be brought around to the belief that torture is not only unacceptable, but also useless. In truth though the useless part is mere icing on the cake. All torture is unacceptable.

    What gets me about all of this when referring to the icing is that these pro-torture turkeys can’t even read the show that they mistakenly thinks gives them justification correctly. Jack Bauer (the role as too many forget)has mostly initiated torture on his own with the understanding that he is breaking the law and has the willingness to take the consequences. That is what makes the show ultimately a tragic portrayal of a patriot that nevertheless is willing to suffer the consequences of his own actions, for what he perceives as the greater good. Many people like Bush/Cheney perhaps, miss this nuance and go with a false interpretation.
    Amusingly, these same people are avoiders of personal responsibility, whereas Jack Bauer exemplifies it. The other part of the plot line is that Jack takes no pleasure in the acts he commits, whereas I suspect Bush/Cheney derived voyeuristic sexual stimulation from reading the details.

  5. Didn’t Obama just admit (obliquely, or unintentionally) that the gov’t has an *obligation* to investigate these acts? I thought that was part of the treaty / Conventions’ conditions, which because we ratified these treaties, are US law – that signatories are obligated to impartially investigate allegations of torture. Am I wrong about this? I couldn’t agree more that deflecting the conversation into questions of effectiveness or “morality” are pure diversions, but maybe action could be “forced” upon him. And thanks Professor Turley for all your forceful advocacy on behalf of the US public.

  6. tom tom,
    It is my contention that as you put it:

    “but maybe action could be “forced” upon him.”

    is the White House strategy and what we see is merely buildup to investigations and trials “forced” to happen.

  7. Mike –

    That’s what I’m hoping too, but I’ll believe it when I see it. One does want to be slow and cautious, let the public wrap its head around the enormity of the implications piece by piece (not that they haven’t been apparent at least since Abu Ghraib), and clean house with the weight of public opinion behind it rather than start a civil war. But the continued invocation of the state secrets powers, the flips on things like telecom immunity make me doubt Obama a little. I’d love to be wrong.

  8. tom tom,

    Do you really believe there would be a “civil war” in America if there was an investigation of bush and cheney? If so, what do you mean by “civil war”? Do you mean riots in the streets? Why would this action cause a “civil war” but not the economic crisis and the severe illegality of our corporate class who both caused and continue to benefit during a dire economic crisis. Do you feel that dick and george are so popular that people would commit “civil war” to save them from even being investigated?

  9. Jill –

    No, I don’t believe it and I’m not endorsing the notion that Obama’s implementing an “11-dimensional chess” policy. I’m just saying I would like to believe he’s really unfolding some slow (but steady) movement toward thoroughly investigating these acts and then letting the investigation dictate what charges are brought against whom, so that the public can be satissfied that the government acted impartially and justly. But because I have my doubts he really intends that, I’d like to see his hand be forced by holding him to the implications of what he said last night. but it’s a reality that no matter what the government does, there will be those crying witch hunt (ironically, since that’s what the torture was in the service of), and Obama would have an understandable desire to be able to demonstrate that the justice dep’t prodeeded disinterestedly. Getting the most people on board and really cleansing ourselves would have enormous positiive impact on our future. However, as I said above, I’ll believe he means all this when I see it, because what looks equally (more?) likely to happen is that this is going into some Commission or Senate Committee, there to disappear until some anodyne report comes out years from now. In which case a “civil war” is infinitely preferable. I also don’t actually believe the cowardly types advocating torture would want a shooting war, it’s just lots of screeching from the usual suspects.

  10. Jill –

    Looking at my response, it’s a model for a lack of clarity. Simply put, I want to believe in Obama. But I want even more that this process is moved forward and that the guilty are held accountable to the law just as you or I would be.

  11. The reporter is Jake Trapper from ABC News. Jake has been a breath of fresh air in asking to the point questions. He has been kinda a thorn in the side to Robert Gibbs in the daily Q N A’s. Trapper and Gibbs went toe ta toe on a few occassions.

    Here’s a classic in just the first 100 days

  12. It’s Jake Tapper, not trapper and he was afraid to ask bush any tough questions. Self important wuss reading the Drudge Report for his info.

  13. Sorry Mike I call him Trapper for his trap. You seem old enough to remember what a trap is, so close yours, you make better sense when you do. Kidding of course.

  14. I have said it before that Obama is just allowing Congress and Holder to do his dirty work for him. I expect the investigations to come, but they won’t come quickly. I wouldn’t do it that way, but I understand why he is doing it this way.
    With that said, I hope I am right. If not, then the progressive left has to go after Obama with as much anger as they did against Bush.

  15. Mespo/Rafflaw:

    “The analysis is based on a Pew Research Center survey of 742 American adults conducted April 14-21. It did not include analysis of groups other than white evangelicals, white non-Hispanic Catholics, white mainline Protestants, and the religiously unaffiliated, because the sample size was too small.”

    I dont think it has much to do with church attendance, looks like more of a conservative crowd. These are the types of people you are going to need to explain the issues to if you want to have a trial.

    In the end the question is does the constitution of the US trump an individuals right to be secure in his/her person. Or at least that is the issue for most “conservative” Americans as near as I can tell.

    Now that is a question, since our rights do not stem from the constitution but from our nature as human beings. The constitution merely codifies natural rights that are inherent to us as rational animals.

  16. Bron,
    What you really have to consider is this: what will happen if you investigate bush? Right now, many of the people you mention above, and a great deal of the rest of the population, are either losing their job or worried about that possibility. People do not have money for housing, food and clothing. It is unlikely that people who are trying desperately to survive will find the issue of bush and cheney being investigated so compelling that they will violently protest in the streets. Bill Clinton was rather popular when he went through the impeachment process. I don’t remember a civil war, riots, or civil unrest while this occurred. I do remember there was heated, passionate argument about the matter. Dick and George aren’t nearly as popular as Clinton. Why would people go crazy over an investigation of them? It just doesn’t make sense. Should investigation and prosecution proceed, most people will be too overwhelmed to even care, much less take to the streets over the matter.

  17. All in all, Our president seems to be somewhat confused. He’s an idividual who dosen’t believe in torture, yet can agree to killing a unborn human being? Remeber “It’s just words, just speeches.” He has lied to all the people in America

  18. Jill:

    when people are desperate and hungry they do take to the streets, see French Revolution. Although I dont think conservatives would necessarily take to the streets in a literal sense. I could see them taking to the streets in a figurative sense in 2010 for the mid-term election.

    Personally I think one of the reason that Pres. Obama is “dragging” his feet is that he knows there is not a consesus at this point for a trial.
    He has got to convince the average American that it is necessary. It took me reading all the arguments on this blog for over 3 months and really thinking about them to reach the conclusion that it is probably the right thing to do and I still have some doubt because I worry about the politics, it should not be preceived as left wing payback. If it ends up being politicized it isnt going to do anything of value.

    Anyway just some thoughts, you all here have had much more time to think about these things.

  19. sapphire98:

    “All in all, Our president seems to be somewhat confused. He’s an idividual who dosen’t believe in torture, yet can agree to killing a unborn human being?”


    Sorry Sapphire, but a 100 cell blastocyst is, in no meaningful way,a “human being.” We’re in the fact business around here –emotional appeals need not apply.

  20. Bron,

    The following is from another poster. I believe it addresses your concerns:

    “lthuedk 1, April 27, 2009 at 11:19 am

    It doesn’t matter if one or 250 million Americans disagree with prosecuting the Bushist Neo Cons. Our nation of laws was not designed for convenience.

    Sometimes the timing of the Law is inconvenient or uncomfortable politically for Constitutionalists like Obama, but that should never be the decider for fair and just law evenly applied.

    The feared right wing response to indictments for it’s heroes would be silenced quickly by the education provided from such prosecutions. There should be no excuse whatsoever for foot-dragging and negligent behavior.

    We either have an administration that fully respects it’s station and the People that put it there, or it shall be replaced in four years.

    I think we’ve waited long enough for Justice.”

  21. Well Messpo0727272, FF LEO, Buddha et al,

    I left my secret decoder ring back at the space station, or the dark side invaded, yet again, last night and relieved me of my duties to the planet that I inhabit in this form.

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