Like many other American progressive-types (title for sake of argument), I voted for Obama and hope every day he'll facilitate the change he promised. A big part of the change progressives interpreted that promise to mean was to bring an end to the Bush administration's "War on Terror." The White House no longer uses the term -- but how much of a break has the new administration really made?
I am not condemning his entire presidency -- nor am I debating it, and I would not debate his goodness as an individual man. I'm arguing that so far his administration has failed to resolve (by reversing) a massive constitutional and moral crisis which has resulted in the brutalization of thousands.
A lot of powerful people in Washington may think it's a crazy-leftist-fringe position to think the intellectual authors of a torture regime should be investigated and prosecuted. But recent polling suggests at least half of the American population favors an independent investigation or criminal prosecution of members of the Bush administration for torture. Half is not fringe. Maybe they say this because they're scared, and well they should be.
It seems most people are quite clear -- the law says if someone should be held underwater repeatedly on no sleep until he thinks he's drowning, or tortured in other ways, the people who ordered it or did it should be be arrested, charged, tried, and sent to jail. And even if, say, 40% of the country wants to advocate breaking the law -- they should still be resigned to see those who did it pay the price for it. How that is a left /right debate is beyond me. How that is even debatable is also beyond me.
Of course, I think it is legitimate for the Commander-in-Chief to be concerned for the safety of his soldiers. I am as well. But the reality is that anti-American sentiment has already been inflamed in Iraq, Afghanistan and across the Muslim world by horrific acts of torture and detainee abuse (not to mention arbitrary detentions and civilian casualties). The photos are evidence of what Afghans and Iraqis already know has taken place. And their number -- there are up to 2000 photos allegedly up for release -- is further proof that torture and abuse were widespread and systemically accepted in US detention facilities.
Whether or not the Obama administration releases them now, the pictures will eventually come out. And if Obama wants to make a true break with Bush/Cheney's "War on Terror" -- and not simply rebrand it -- releasing the photos would be an important step, and send a signal to the rest of the world. If the move is judged too dangerous for US troops, the president could at least ask the Department of Defense to release the photos to an independent council charged with investigating and prosecuting those at the highest levels responsible for mandating and creating a culture of torture and abuse. So far, he has done neither.
What is most disturbing about the refusal to release the photos is the broader pattern into which it fits -- a pattern of decisions that effectively preserve the framework of Bush's War on Terror, with all the violations of our constitution that it entails.
I spoke with Constitutional Law professor Jonathan Turley, and this is how he described the series of decisions that the administration has made:
"Well it can't get any worse: extreme executive privilege arguments in court, withholding of abuse photos, adoptions of indefinite detentions without trial, restarting military commissions, and blocking any torture investigation. Welcome to Bush 2.0..."
"In my view, it comes down to a simple question of the rule of law FOIA clearly mandates the release of the photos. Notably, even Obama says that they are not as bad as the first set. However, it does not matter. It would be a dangerous thing if an Administration can withhold documents and photographs on the basis for embarrassment to the country. FOIA is needed to get material that an Administration has refused to release. It is often embarrassing. If an Administration can simply invoke an embarrassment exemption, FOIA would be gutted..."
Obama never promised he would transform the entire architecture of the American system -- he's a pragmatist, not a revolutionary. But he did say he would restore balance and the rule of law to the existing system. For that, the Bush/Cheney "War on Terror" paradigm must be dismantled. Disclosing the photos and mandating an independent prosecutor to investigate those responsible for torture would be one step in signaling a genuine break with this endless-just war paradigm, and ensure the terrible violations it made possible will never again be perpetrated by agents of the United States.
And that a horrible precedent will not be set for future US state crimes.