“We Tortured Some Folks”: Obama Admits United States Committed Acts Violating Federal and International Law

President_Barack_Obamatorture -abu ghraibFollowing 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.”

Source: ABC

359 thoughts on ““We Tortured Some Folks”: Obama Admits United States Committed Acts Violating Federal and International Law”

  1. John Oliver: “I do have a problem with the expedient action that led to it.”

    That’s just how the sausage is made. All our wars have mundane back-stories, including the ones with the pretty myths, like America’s origin story.

    It’s simply war in the context of everything else. War isn’t source. War isn’t whim. Politics by other means, right? And politics cover everything mankind. The nature of the world is competition and war is the crest of competition. War is consequential cause and effect because the whole competition is consequential causes and effects.

    The normative international community is the best way we know how to tame the beast of mankind’s competitive nature. The error is not the wary handler’s. The error is by people, like this blog’s host, who mistake the normative international community as mankind’s nature and believe it is the switch that makes the tiger growl.

  2. Prairie, I did not bother to look up dem because I have no doubt they used voice votes but you made this partisan. Here is what the repubs did, as one example. http://firstread.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/08/28/13531281-gop-approves-delegate-rule-changes-over-vocal-objections GOP approves delegate rule changes over vocal objections

    Republican leaders pushed through contentious changes to delegate rules over the objection of conservatives and supporters of Texas Rep. Ron Paul.

    Loud boos erupted Tuesday on the floor of the Republican National Convention as RNC Chairman Reince Priebus and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, ruled that a voice vote was sufficient to approve credentialing rules for delegates at future conventions.

    Delegates shout in protest over changes in Republican party rules that would restrict the impact of grassroots movements, before a vote to adopt the new rules during the second session of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, August 28, 2012.

    Chants that sounded like “Seat them now!” did battle with chants of “U-S-A” from supportive delegates seeking to shout the protestors down.

    The rules change essentially tightens party control over the manner in which delegates are allocated and bound to candidates.

    The repubs even in their own convention do not tolerate much dissent

  3. leejcaroll,
    “I would go further with the no voting present. I would make it that all votes go on the record by name, no voice votes with the “ayes (or nays) have it, the vote being decided on how the speaker wants to hear which is louder.”

    The DNC should consider this, too, since there was that bruhaha during the election over whether or not to include commentary about God on the platform or some such thing. No biased ears then.

    1. Prairie Rose, hadn’t looked at the other page I had opened re repub convention. But saw this as I went to close the window:
      Witnesses say that Teleprompter scrolled “the ayes have it” even before the voice vote was taken. Also, video of the rule change vote at the Republican National Convention shows that the vote seemed to be a toss up with no clear winner and yet the ayes were immediately declared winners. This declaration was drowned out by loud booing. Also, before John Boehner called for the vote, he asked if there were any objections and there were clearly people who objected and yet John Boehner said there were none.Other witnesses say that they were purposely held up in the convention bus so that they would miss the vote in the rules committee. Also, news outlets reported that Romney had two of the rules committee delegates removed and replaced with delegates who would vote for the Romney Rule Changes. These committee delegates being held up and replaced prevented a minority report because there were not enough committee members – http://www.texasgopvote.com/issues/stop-big-government/evidence-shows-rnc-rigged-vote-rule-change-republican-convention-2012-004544#sthash.cSsbML9O.dpuf

      Ironically this is from a right wing GOP site It turns out but they have the video so you can decide for yourself.)

  4. I can think of no better analogy for this issue than the Africanized Honey Bee (Killer Bee). A biologist decided to take “expedient” action and introduce one bee culture into another; all for the greater “honey” good. Unfortunately, the unintended consequence has led to a loss of containment within the region. We are now faced with the need for “exigent” action.

    So, for the record; I have no problem with the exigent action of “water-boarding” Killer Bees, but I do have a problem with the expedient action that led to it.

  5. tossaway: “I don’t have that much of a problem with torture. However, I have a huge problem with denying and hiding it. If we are doing it, then we need to justify it, and if we can justify it, we have no reason to hide it.”

    I meant to respond to this a while back and got sidetracked.

    Your view is more in line with the Bush approach to the issue.

    The issue is exigency.

    If it’s an action we need to take due to exigent circumstance, then we should take the action without penalizing our leaders and agents for doing what needs done.

    But if that exigent action is one that we don’t want to normalize or ‘creep’ outside the need, then we should construct a box for it. Thus, when the exigency is resolved, we can uncouple the box with the action contained inside and cleanly remove it from normal practice.

    Martial law works like that, though there are other legal routes.

    My understanding is the Bush approach, eg, the Yoo memo, was intended to construct just such a modular way to take exigent action while also containing it to the exigent circumstance.

    The mistake by Obama was to devalue the exigency as “expedience” and removing the modular legal structure containing the exigent actions.

    But then, when Obama then discovered the actions were in fact exigent, and not merely expedient, he neglected (or deliberately chose not) to provide a legal containment for them. Blurring the lines drawn by the Bush administration was politically expedient by removing the visible political target Obama had used to attack Bush, but Obama’s uncontained approach threatens that exigent actions will normalize and ‘creep’ outside the need.

  6. I’m for repealing the 17th and it doesn’t need to be any more complicated than returning each state the right for representation in the federal government. As originally constructed, the lower chamber was for the people and the upper was for the state. The 17th took the vote away from the state and effectively created a 535 seat Legislative branch representing the interests of the people. The states no longer have direct representation in the federal government.

    A chief argument for the 17th was the prospect of corruption. Corruption, as has been proven over time, is inherent in government. The 17th simply made it easier to corrupt Senators by moving those seeking to influence Congress out of the individual states and centering their power in D.C.

  7. John Oliver,

    I think this sums up the difference in our positions.

    You: Do we have a (philosophical) natural right to intervene and nation-build?

    Me: Do we have a (practical) competitive interest to intervene and nation-build?

  8. Excellent emptywheel posting this morning:


    Marcy Wheeler:

    “Which is why this is my favorite line from Grenier’s piece.

    Goodness. If even a substantial portion of this were true, I would be among the first to advise that CIA be razed to the ground and begun all over again.

    This is coming (as Grenier alludes to but doesn’t fully lay out, just as he lays out the suggestion that CIA resumed torture after he refused in early 2006) from a guy who tried to stay within the law, stopped torturing after the Detainee Treatment Act forbade it. It is, perhaps, the best line, given the impasse we’re at.

    CIA has become the instrument of illegal actions, an arm of the Executive that evades all law, precisely because of its corrupted relationships with both the Executive and Legislative branch.

    So, I take you up on the suggestion, Robert Grenier. Let’s raze the damn thing and — if a thorough assessment says a democracy really needs such an agency, which it may not — start over.”

  9. I like your list though. (although I am not sure personally how I feel about term limits. On the one hand it is a good idea, on the other then each time you have to spend auite some time getting the new guys up to speed which could considerably hinder the work of the congress.
    JohnOliver not sure I could agree with the ones y ou pose but sure would be interesting to see what would happen if those were put to the test.

  10. This is interesting re repeal 17th amendment. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2014/02/conservatives_17th_amendment_repeal_effort_why_their_plan_will_backfire.html
    I am not for the repeal.
    As for exit polling it is my understanding that since they forced the networks to not tell the results until the polls were closed, so that they could no longer do it in the east and have the western voters be impacted by the results. http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/mediawire/194410/exit-poll-data-will-be-examined-in-quarantine-room/

  11. Prairie Rose I would go further with the no voting present. I would make it that all votes go on the record by name, no voice votes with the “ayes (or nays) have it, the vote being decided on how the speaker wants to hear which is louder.

  12. John Oliver,

    What you’re rejecting as “progressive philosophy” is just how human society works mechanistically. As process, you can replace “liberal belief system” with X belief system.

    The error in your approach to natural rights is conflating the individual with the social. The original premise of natural-rights philosophy draws a direct line from God to individual man. How individuals socially form and interact in the world, God leaves that up to us. The practice of individual rights, however natural, depends on the construction of the social setting.

    Construction of the social setting is with competition.

    I had the privilege of reading an original copy of the 1st draft of the Declaration, handwritten by Thomas Jefferson, on public display.

    President Jefferson understood the competitive social process. He competed to build the American nation he envisioned, even with “the blood of patriots and tyrants”. Jefferson expected the social competition to be never-ending.

    The Declaration ranges wide. Most of its issues are practical, not philosophical, though the whole is couched in a particular political frame. At the time, was a plurality of colonists actually on board with its grievances and remedies? I guess so because the Declaration reads like a laundry list of grievances comprehensive enough so that some were actually edited out for the final draft. In turn, were the colonists who were on board with its grievances and remedies also on board with Jefferson’s vision for the American nation? I don’t know.

    I do know in practice, the social development (acculturation) of the philosophy of America, while concurrent, followed on the practical development of America. Of course, the two were not wholly separate courses. Law and government are intersections of the practical and philosophical.

    How long did it take to nation-build America? A lot longer than 8 years and longer than America’s modern nation-building stewardships. See the Civil War, and that didn’t fully settle the issue. Like Bush said: generations.

    Domestic policy and foreign policy, while each requires a set of checks and balances, need to be practiced separately with different mindset and approach. While our values should play a role, foreign policy should be competitive first with America and Team America foremost. As was the case with Bush’s post-9/11 foreign policy, the philosophical should serve the practical.

    The competitive first-and-foremost approach that best serves our foreign policy should not be the same as our internal approach with domestic policy. They’re different hats. The distinct nature of the policy areas is reflected in the Constitution.

  13. Since you asked Prairie Rose:

    – End the multi-question decennial surveys for the census. Limit it to the short form only to provide the information necessary to fulfill the constitutional requirement.
    – On the issue of voter ID: require a civics exam to get the ID; require the same passing score as is now needed for new citizens (I believe it’s 70%)
    – Require retesting every 2 years for 79% and below; every 4 years for 89% to 80%; every 6 years for 90% and above). This is to make continuing civics education important.
    – Make all Congressional representatives ineligible for House committees whose district voter participation is below 50% and/or whose average test score is below 70%
    – Make all Senators ineligible for committees whose state voter participation is below 50% and/or whose average test score is below 70%.

  14. Good discussion, leejcaroll. Now, for our ideas to take hold and our republic saved. Ahhh…all in a few days’ work. 😉

    Here’s a recap of the ideas we’ve discussed that could be taken to various state/Fed congressmen for consideration. If I miss any, please add them.

    –Outlawing gerrymandering (put the control of the districts in the hands of the state?)
    –Citizen United and McCutcheon overturned (any other bad laws or decisions?)
    –Repeal the 17th Amendment
    –Make voter ID’s mandatory and to that end, provide whatever service is necessary to make them available.
    –Make voting mandatory in the manner that jury duty is mandatory
    –Allow on the ballot “none of the above” as a choice
    –Require congressmen to vote yay or nay–no voting “present”, but allow for a longer period of time prior to the vote so laws are not shuttled through without having been read
    –Term limits (for both houses or just senators?)
    –end exit polling

    Any others?

  15. leejcaroll,
    “I don’t think the mandatory schooling is an apt analogy. Those are kids. They can’t see past themselves and their immediacy. Hopefully for most adults they understand that the future will be important to them and vote on that basis.”

    That is a good point. But, in order to make mandatory voting work (and not just an exercise in futility), then the other aspects of “the system” need to change, too.

    “If you have to vote and see that you are then a part of the problem (astounds me the number of times I read/hear people saying “I didn’t vote so don’t blame me” for whatever is going on that people don’t like) maybe if they knew they would have the “blame” or the “credit” they would make an effort to learn about what they are doing when they pull that lever.”

    This is also a good point and also one that I think our elected officials should have to abide by–no voting “present”! If they vote present then they cannot be held accountable but people will still elect them because a) name-recognition, and b) they don’t remember anything negative about the politician since the politician didn’t make any hard voting decisions.

    “(but then again, maybe I just want to be Peter Pan and fly ((*_*)) )”

    This sounds good, too–and far more fun. Some days I’d rather just fly off to Neverland or some other inhabited island and start over from scratch. 🙂

  16. “There was no spectral philosophical consensus, beyond the elites, that pre-existed the American founding and then reified, fully formed, upon independence. It was no less organically grown with us than with the nations we’ve built.”

    Just to be clear in your meaning; are you saying the laundry list of grievances in the Declaration of Independence were not also those of the people the 56 signers represented?

    “A sophisticated grasp of liberal philosophy is needed only for the controlling elites. Culture is not prerequisite. The acculturation of a liberal belief system in the people, while often concurrent, follows on basic elements like security, stability, civic function, and economy.”

    Is there a better articulated message representing the progressive philosophy? I believe you intended that to represent our foreign interests but it but it works quite well domestically.

    In either case, I reject it.

  17. Prairie I don’t think the mandatory schooling is an apt analogy. Those are kids. They can’t see past themselves and their immediavy. Hopefully for most adults they understand that the future will be important to them and vote on that basis.
    Maybe if one was required to vote enough of us would take and stand and demand citizens, for instance be changed through law so that people are no longer corporations.
    I have felt for a long time if we had the draft people would not have accepted Iraq and Afghanistan war. at least not without Bush giving an exit strategy, so we did not end up with another Vietnam. Their self preservation, or that of their children, nephews, nieces, friends, friends kids etc would cause them to raise their voices up, as they did with Vietnam.
    If you have to vote and see that you are then a part of the problem (astounds me the number of times I read/hear people saying “I didn’t vote so don’t blame me” for whatever is going on that people don’t like) maybe if they knew they would have the “blame” or the “credit” they would make an effort to learn about what they are doing when they pull that lever. They would behave as the protestors did and clamor through their vote for the changes they want made.
    (but then again, maybe I just want to be Peter Pan and fly ((*_*)) )

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