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Age of Obama
Barack Obama's presidency

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George W. Bush's presidency since 2007

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George W. Bush's presidency from 2005-06

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George W. Bush's presidency, 2000-04

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Contra drug stories uncovered

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From free trade to the Kosovo crisis.

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Obama's Hypocrisy on Torture

By Jason Leopold
October 2, 2010

Editor’s Note: It’s always easier to condemn abuses by an “enemy” state than to acknowledge similar crimes committed by your own. But that it is the commitment that the United States and other signatories to anti-torture agreements undertook.

Instead, President Obama has followed the hypocritical political course of shielding his U.S. predecessor from any accountability for torture, murder and other crimes, while adopting a moralistic posture against Iran, as Jason Leopold notes in this guest essay:

This week, in a burst of stunning hypocrisy, President Barack Obama signed an executive order that imposes sanctions on Iran for human rights abuses and targets eight Iranian government and military officials who are blamed for the torture, abuse and murder of citizens who protested Iran’s 2009 presidential election.

“The United States is strongly committed to the promotion of human rights around the world, including in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” the White House said in an accompanying news release. “As the President noted in his recent address to the United Nations General Assembly, human rights are a matter of moral and pragmatic necessity for the United States.”

A State Department fact sheet added, “protesters [in Iran] were detained without formal charges brought against them and during this detention detainees were subjected to beatings, solitary confinement, and a denial of due process rights at the hands of intelligence officers under the direction of [Iran’s then-Minister of Military Intelligence Qolam] Mohseni-Ejei.

“In addition, political figures were coerced into making false confessions under unbearable interrogations, which included torture, abuse, blackmail, and the threatening of family members,” the State Department said.

Yet, President Obama has taken no action against U.S. officials who under the direction of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld imprisoned without charge “war on terror” detainees at secret black sites and at Guantanamo Bay.

These prisoners also were subjected to beatings, solitary confinement and a denial of due process. They, too, were coerced into making false confessions under unbearable interrogations, which included torture, abuse, blackmail, and the threatening of family members.

President Obama has excused his failure to exact any accountability on complicit U.S. officials by saying that he preferred “to look forward, not backwards.” It is apparently easier to look backwards in Iran and demand accountability than it is in Washington.

Even as the Obama administration insists on punishing alleged Iranian abusers, it continues to use the state secret privilege and other legal maneuvers to derail civil lawsuits that seek some justice against U.S. officials responsible for the abuse and deaths of detainees in American custody.

As Obama appointees were congratulating themselves for going after those eight Iranians, a U.S. District Court Judge in Washington, DC, was dismissing a lawsuit filed against Rumsfeld and two dozen other U.S. officials by the families of two Guantanamo detainees who, along with another prisoner, committed suicide at the detention center in 2006, , according to the government’s official account.

Judge Ellen Huevelle noted in her opinion that there was compelling evidence the detainees were murdered. But last year the Obama administration said in a legal brief that the Military Commissions Act of 2006 stripped the courts of jurisdiction to hear lawsuits that challenged the "detention, transfer, treatment or conditions of confinement" of "enemy combatants."

Moreover, in court papers filed in June 2009, the Obama administration said, "Judicial intrusion into this politically sensitive area by creating a damages remedy for detainees could subvert these military and diplomatic efforts and lead to 'embarrassment of our government abroad.'"

Besides, the Obama administration said, just as torture memo author John Yoo is entitled to absolute immunity, Defense Department officials like Rumsfeld are entitled to "qualified immunity" because the "Fifth and Eighth Amendments do not extend to Guantánamo Bay detainees." Judge Huevelle ultimately agreed to dismiss the case.

Three weeks ago, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the Obama administration and blocked another lawsuit, this one filed against Jeppesen DataPlan, a subsidiary of Boeing, that was accused of knowingly flying people kidnapped by the CIA to secret overseas prisons where they were tortured.

The Obama administration, like the Bush administration, argued that state secrets would be at risk if the case were allowed to move forward.

In a 6-5 decision, the appeals court judges said the lawsuit presented “a painful conflict between human rights and national security” and agreed with Obama’s Justice Department attorneys that the latter trumped the former.
Essentially, the decision means that victims of the Bush administration’s torture program are not entitled to have their day in court if the government believes sensitive national security information would be disclosed.  

Ben Wizner, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who argued the case on behalf of the five plaintiffs, said, if the “decision is allowed to stand, the United States will have closed its courtroom doors to torture victims while providing complete immunity to their torturers."

Obama’s aggressive efforts to protect his predecessor’s crimes are not limited to the United States.

Last year, the Obama administration told British officials that intelligence sharing between the U.S. and the UK could be halted if seven redacted paragraphs contained in secret U.S. documents relating to the torture of Binyam Mohamed, one of the victims named in Jeppesen lawsuit, were made public by a British High Court.

According to legal papers filed by the ACLU, Mohamed was beaten so severely on numerous occasions that he routinely lost consciousness and during one gruesome torture session “a scalpel was used to make incisions all over his body, including his penis, after which a hot stinging liquid was poured into his open wounds.”

In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Obama said that while he has been unable to close Guantanamo as promised, he “has been able to ban torture” since being sworn into office.

But Obama’s use of the word “torture” to describe what had taken place during George W. Bush’s tenure obligates him under the Convention Against Torture to conduct a full investigation and to prosecute the offenders.

The Convention declares that: "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture."

Moreover, the Convention says individuals who resort to torture cannot defend their actions by saying they were acting on orders from superiors and it mandates that torturers be prosecuted wherever they are found.

According to that provision, "each state party is required either to prosecute torturers who are found in its territory or to extradite them to other countries for prosecution."

However, while Obama and his team give the Bush administration a pass on torture, different standards are applied to officials from “enemy” states.

During a news conference last Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounced the eight Iranian officials, saying that under their “watch or under their command, Iranian citizens have been arbitrarily arrested, beaten, tortured, raped, blackmailed, and killed.

“Yet the Iranian Government has ignored repeated calls from the international community to end these abuses, to hold to account those responsible and respect the rights and fundamental freedoms of its citizens.”

The hypocrisy has passed virtually unnoticed in the mainstream U.S. news media. Yet, it’s hard to take the Obama administration’s moralizing seriously when they have taken pass on evidence of American abuses, such as this:

Dilawar was chained by his wrists to the ceiling of his cell for four days and brutally beaten by Army interrogators on his legs for hours on end to the point where he could no longer bend them. He died on Dec. 10, 2002.

Lt. Col. Elizabeth Rouse, an Air Force medical examiner who performed an autopsy on Dilawar, said Dilawar’s leg was pummeled so badly that the ”tissue was falling apart and had basically been pulpified.”

“Had Dilawar lived,” Rouse told Army investigators in sworn testimony, “I believe the injury to the legs are so extensive that it would have required amputation. I’ve seen similar injuries in an individual run over by a bus.’”

According to a report published by the Senate Armed Services Committee, Dilawar and another detainee whose death was also listed as a homicide, were killed within one week of Rumsfeld issuing a memo to military authorizing the use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques against prisoners in Afghanistan.

The Armed Services Committee report said those “aggressive interrogation techniques conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody.”

As the New York Times reported, when Dilawar had died, “most of the interrogators had believed Mr. Dilawar was an innocent man who simply drove his taxi past the American base at the wrong time.”

Obama also has not taken steps to investigate the explosive claims leveled in a sworn declaration by Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, a former top Bush administration official, that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld knew the "vast majority" of the 700 or so prisoners sent to Guantanamo were innocent.

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell during George W. Bush's first term in office, said the administration refused to set them free after those facts were established because of the political repercussions that would have ensued.

President Obama apparently has made a similar political calculation regarding the partisan recriminations that would follow if he allowed the prosecutions of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and other officials implicated in “war on terror” torture cases.

It appears to be much safer politically for Obama to turn a blind eye to crimes by his predecessor while pointing the finger at Iranians.

A version of this article also appeared at

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