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William Fisher

William Fisher

Posted January 18, 2009 | 02:07 PM (EST)

The First Hundred Days


Human rights advocates and religious leaders are calling on President-elect Barack Obama to use his first hundred days in office to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay and repudiate the policies of President George W. Bush on an array of issues ranging from detainee torture and rendition to warrantless wiretapping and signing statements.

But with the nation facing the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s, it is unclear whether human rights will become the top priority of the Obama Administration and its allies in Congress.

Nonetheless, such leading organizations as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Human Rights First are demanding that the President-elect take the lead in effecting speedy action.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) wants the Obama Administration to close the CIA's secret detention centers permanently, apply to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) the rules used by the U.S. military to prevent coercive interrogation, close the Guantanamo detention center, repatriate or prosecute all detainees, and ensure that prosecutions are conducted in regular courts, not the "substandard" military commissions.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of HRW said, "Barack Obama must seize back the US leadership in global human rights squandered by outgoing President George Bush in Guantanamo Bay and other scandals."

The group issued a 564-page report on the state of human rights around the world. The report charged that governments opposing basic rights, including those in Russia and China, had rushed to fill a vacuum left by the United States.

It blamed Bush's "abandonment of long-held principles, including opposition to torture, in the U.S. war against Islamist militants," but said Obama "could repair the damage once he takes office on January 20. "There is an enormous need for the Obama administration to redeem America's reputation," Roth added.

At the same time, a coalition of equally prominent groups issued a similar "Human Rights Call to Action" at a summit in Washington last week. It demanded that the Obama Administration put an end to "torture, arbitrary detention, and extraordinary rendition, including closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay and rejecting preventive detention models; ending surveillance abuses, attacks on dissent, and targeting of immigrant groups and other communities of color; and ensuring human rights, civil rights and civil liberties."

The summit included the American Arab Anti Discrimination Committee, the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International USA, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Constitution Project, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, the National Lawyers Guild, the Partnership for Civil Justice, the Torture Abolition Survivors Support Coalition, the US Human Rights Network, and Witness Against Torture

Similar demands are being made by a number of religious leaders and organizations.

National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) is urging Obama to issue an executive order ending torture one of his first official acts in office. A letter to the President-elect, signed by close to three dozen prominent religious leaders representing America's diverse faith traditions, said, "Such a step will help the United States to regain the moral high ground and restore our credibility within the international community at this critical time."

The organization also joined a number of other groups in calling for "an investigation of torture policies and practices since 9/11." Rev. Richard L. Killmer, NRCAT Executive Director, told us, "In order to create safeguards to make sure that torture does not happen again, it is important to understand what happened. NRCAT supports an independent non-partisan committee of inquiry with subpoena power and sufficient funding to do a thorough investigation and issue a comprehensive report."

He added, "I think about my seven grandchildren. I can imagine that some day they will say that the United States used to torture, but we don't do that anymore. The challenge for our nation is to develop sufficient safeguards so that we don't torture anymore. We need to understand what happen so that those safeguards can be created."

Another group of prominent religious leaders presented the Obama Administration with what it called a "Come Let Us Reason Together" Agenda. As part of a multi-issue declaration, the group asserted that "The use of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment against prisoners is immoral, unwise, and un-American."

Leaders of the group represent such organizations as Third Way, Public Religion Research, Evangelicals for Human Rights, Evangelicals for Social Action, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, and Faith in Public Life.

As these organizations went public with their demands, pressure appeared to be growing for a comprehensive independent investigation of human rights abuses allegedly committed by the Bush Administration. But when ABC News's George Stephanopoulos pressed Obama about it on the television program, "This Week," Obama said he was "still evaluating" the situation but added, "My orientation is going to be moving forward."

However, on Obama's transition website, Change.gov, the top-rated publicly-submitted question asked the incoming president whether he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate "the gravest crimes of the Bush Administration, including torture and warrantless wiretapping."

Other powerful players are taking the view that questions about the Bush administration's torture policies are so serious they can be answered only by a bipartisan, in-depth investigation. Among them is Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who introduced a bill to establish a blue-ribbon commission to investigate Bush's alleged abuse of executive war powers and civil liberties. The commission would be similar to the panel that investigated the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.

The pressure on the Obama team escalated last week when a senior Bush Administration official admitted that Guantanamo interrogators and guards had tortured one of the detainees, Mohammed al Qahtani, a Saudi national accused of planning to take part in the September 11, 2001, attacks

The official, Susan Crawford, a retired judge who oversees the military tribunals for Guantanamo Bay inmates, told The Washington Post, "We tortured Qahtani. His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that's why I did not refer the case" for prosecution.

According to press reports, Qahtani had proved impervious to standard military interrogation in 2002 when former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld authorized special methods to break his will.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) described the admission as "stunning" but said the Bush administration was still planning, on its final full day in office, to prosecute other detainees who had been tortured.

Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have said that the United States does not torture. But Cheney has admitted publicly that a technique known as waterboarding - which simulates drowning - was administered to three detainees.

Bush Administration officials, including the president, vice president, and Attorney General Michael Mukasey have been unwilling to acknowledge that waterboarding constitutes torture. But Obama's nominee for Attorney General, Eric Holder, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, unequivocally declared, "waterboarding is torture."

That's an encouraging start. And there seems little doubt that once he becomes our "one president at a time," Barack Obama will make good on his campaign promise to order the Pentagon to close Guantanamo.

But that will still leave the president with two enormous dilemmas. The first is what to do with the 250-plus men still detained at GITMO.

There is one group of detainees that is already cleared to be freed; but many cannot be repatriated to their home countries for fear they will be abused, and many other countries have been reluctant to accept them. Those countries include our own, which has refused to accept a ruling by a Federal judge to free a group of Chinese Muslims - known as Uighurs - and allow them to enter the U.S. And it is unlikely that other countries will change their positions until they see that America is prepared to change its own.

A second group of detainees consists of men who could be tried in our regular criminal courts - without compromising our national security. There is ample precedent: There have been far more convictions on terror-related charges in our Federal courts than in the seriously flawed Military Tribunals set up by the Bush Administration. The number for the latter is exactly three, one of which was a plea deal.

The detainees that will likely give President Obama his most serious migraine are those who probably cannot be tried in any court because the evidence against them will be inadmissible because it was obtained through cruel and inhuman treatment. No credible court will accept such evidence, meaning these men cannot be tried. This is the problem that no one has yet solved - but which the Obama team will have to solve.

The new president's second dilemma is whether to conduct an independent and comprehensive review of the abuses of the Bush years to determine whether war crimes were committed -- and who should be held accountable.
Obama's position thus far is that he would rather look forward than backward.

But what kind of message would that send to those responsible for those crimes - and to those who may be given similar responsibilities in the future? The message will be: The nation is willing to sweep your transgressions under the carpet in the interests of "national unity." Come collect your "get out of jail" card.

If Obama follows that road, it will not, like Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon, end our "long national nightmare." It will simply delay the next one.