Following the admission that the CIA hacked Senate computers and lied to Congress, President Obama today affirmed that it did indeed torture people. This admission (while belated) is an important recognition by the United States of what is obvious from a legal standpoint. However, that also means that CIA officials violated both federal and international law. The question is why Obama began his first term by promising CIA employees that they would not be tried for what he now describes as “tortur[ing] some folks.”
Despite the prior lying to Congress, Obama insisted that he had “full confidence in John Brennan.” As noted before, the Obama Administration is clearly unwilling again to discipline, let alone charged, any CIA personnel for hacking into congressional computers.
The President then turned to the Senate report on our torture program and affirmed his earlier 2009 statement that this was torture — plain and simple:
Even before I came into office, I was very clear that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we did some things that were wrong. We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks. We did some things that were contrary to our values. I understand why it happened. I think it’s important when we look back to recall how afraid people were after the twin towers fell and the Pentagon had been hit and the plane in Pennsylvania had fallen and people did not know whether more attacks were imminent and there was enormous pressure on our law enforcement and our national security teams to try to deal with this. And, you know, it’s important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had. A lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots, but having said all that, we did some things that were wrong. And that’s what that report reflects.
Just a few points are warranted here.
First, torture is a war crime and the United States has insisted that it was at war. We have an obligation to investigate and prosecute any officials responsible for torture. Instead, both the Bush and Obama Administrations threatened countries like Spain and England for even investigating aspects of these crimes. Saying that we “tortured some folks” is not compliance with these law – either domestic or international
Second, it does not matter if we are “afraid” or angry under international law. These treaties clearly reject defenses like “just following orders” or justified torture.
Third, Obama has yet to explain his promise to the CIA employees after taking office. After his election, various high officials said that Obama told them privately that no Bush or CIA officials would be prosecuted. His staff denied the stories but he then soon thereafter told the CIA staff precisely that.
Finally, not only has the United States refused to hold our own officials to the same standards that we impose on other countries, but those responsible for our torture program are giving interviews and writing books in plain sight. In the meantime, the Administration has successfully blocked torture victims from seeking judicial review or relief in our courts.
That record makes the admission that “we tortured some folks” a bit less satisfying. No one familiar with the cases in this area should seriously doubt that we tortured people. What remains unclear is how we can justify not prosecuting those responsible. We may have “tortured some folks” but we never “prosecuted other folks.”