Opinion

President Obama's abysmal, legacy-killing response to the CIA torture report

The president could have made sure that torture will never happen again. Instead, he let the perpetrators off the hook.

In a remarkable coincidence, the government of Brazil released its own official torture report last week, only a few days after the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee published its findings on the CIA's use of torture during the Bush era. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff announced the results of the National Truth Commission, which produced a 2,000-page report detailing the torture inflicted by the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985.

Rousseff broke down in tears at one point, prompting the audience to offer a standing ovation in solidarity. The presentation made for a sharp contrast with President Obama's breezy remarks about American torture during a press conference in August. Obama made no reference to the fact that torture is blatantly illegal, sympathized with its perpetrators, and topped it off with an instantly infamous whitewash of war crimes: "We tortured some folks."

The reason for the divergence is obvious: Rousseff was herself tortured in the 1970s, when she was a Marxist guerrilla fighting the Brazilian dictatorship. Obama is doubtless a tough person. But I do not for a moment believe he would be so infuriatingly blasé about torture if he had been electrocuted, or had his teeth punched out, or had been strung up on the pau de arara.

Of course, it is not necessary to be tortured oneself to realize that torture is a great and monstrous evil (not to mention a complete disaster for intelligence collection). But it does take a degree of moral seriousness and political courage, both of which have been utterly absent from the president on this issue. By letting torturers completely off the hook for grotesque, Idi Amin–esque crimes, Obama has damaged the country and poisoned his legacy.

It didn't start out this way. On the second day of his presidency, he signed executive orders mandating that all interrogations should follow the Army Field Manual, thus effectively banning the Bush torture program. But in early 2009, the administration confirmed it would prosecute no one at the CIA, and in August 2012 Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department would prosecute no one at all.

This was obviously a political decision. Individual CIA officers argued that they were following instructions from the top, and had legal authorization in the form of executive orders and memos from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. It does seem pretty unfair to prosecute the grunts actually carrying out the rapes and beatings, while leaving the legal hacks and their political masters alone.

But if Obama had decided to prosecute the top officials, it would have been a colossal political scandal. The rot went all the way to the top. It would have meant indicting George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, and likely dozens of other Bush insiders. It would have been a political scandal without precedent. It would have consumed Obama's presidency.

Obama apparently concluded that it wasn't worth the trouble, and that simply putting it all behind us was the best move. But here's the thing about horrifying atrocities: they tend to be hard to forget.

There was an alternative, though. A blue-ribbon commission with bipartisan opponents of torture (Sens. John McCain and Mark Udall, for starters), granted the authority to hand out pardons to anyone willing to testify, but armed with a special prosecutor to threaten to indict those who did not. This arrangement could have threaded the needle, much as South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission helped the country confront its grim Apartheid past without breaking its new political system.

A war crimes tribunal would have been preferable. But a commission of some sort would have been better than nothing. What the Senate Intelligence Committee did was a mere exercise of its oversight duties. Indeed, we arguably have the worst of all possible worlds: explicit acknowledgment that a conspiracy to conduct illegal torture was carried out at the very highest levels of government, and equally explicit acknowledgment that nobody will be prosecuted for terrible crimes. The message is that the CIA is above the law.

If Obama paid closer attention to Brazil, he might be a tad more concerned. Despite many reforms and hard work, torture is still a major problem in Brazil, because it's very hard to eradicate once it gets going.

If torture becomes established in the American national security apparatus, Obama will be portrayed as a major villain in textbooks of the future. Dick Cheney brought torture into the American fold. But Obama, through inaction and cowardice, allowed it to remain there.

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