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The Five Commandments of Barack Obama

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Posted on Feb 28, 2014

@jbtaylor (CC BY 2.0)

By Karen J. Greenberg, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch.

In January 2009, Barack Obama entered the Oval Office projecting idealism and proud to be the constitutional law professor devoted to turning democratic principles into action.  In his first weeks in office, in a series of executive orders and public statements, the new president broadcast for all to hear the five commandments by which life in his new world of national security would be lived. 

Thou shalt not torture.

Thou shalt not keep Guantanamo open.

Thou shalt not keep secrets unnecessarily.

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Thou shalt not wage war without limits.

Thou shalt not live above the law.

Five years later, the question is: How have he and his administration lived up to these self-proclaimed commandments?

Let’s consider them one by one:

1. Thou Shalt Not Torture.

Here, the president has fared best at living up to his own standards and ending a shameful practice encouraged and supported by the previous administration. On his first day in office, he ordered an end to the practice of torture, or as the Bush administration euphemistically called it, “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs), by agents of the U.S. government. In the president’s words, “effective immediately” individuals in U.S. custody “shall not be subjected to any interrogation technique or approach, or any treatment related to interrogation, that is not authorized by and listed in [the] Army Field Manual.”

No questioning of future terror suspects would henceforth be done without using standard, legal forms of interrogation codified in the American criminal and military justice systems. This meant, among other things, shutting down the network of secret prison facilities, or “black sites,” the Bush administration had established globally from Poland to Thailand, where the CIA had infamously tortured its captives in the Global War on Terror.  With that in mind, Obama ordered the CIA to “close as expeditiously as possible any detention facilities that it currently operates and… not operate any such detention facility in the future.”

The practice of officially sponsored torture, which had, in fact, begun to fall into disuse in the last years of the Bush administration, was now to come to a full stop.  Admittedly, there are still some issues that warrant attention. The continued force-feeding of detainees at Guantanamo is a case in point, but state-sponsored torture, justified by law, is now, as before the Bush years, illegal in America.

The commandment banning torture has, it seems, lasted into the sixth year of Obama’s presidency—and so much for the good news.

2.  Thou Shalt Not Keep Guantanamo Open.

On his first day in office, President Obama also pledged to close the infamous Guantanamo Bay detention facility, home at the time to 245 detainees, within a year. The task proved politically impossible. So today, the president stands pledged once again to close it within a year.  As he said in his State of the Union Address last month, “this needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.” And it’s possible that, this time, he might actually do so.

In June 2013, the president appointed former Clinton White House lawyer Cliff Sloan as special envoy in charge of closing Guantanamo. After a long period in which the administration seemed stymied, in part by Congress, in its efforts to send detainees approved for release home or to a third country, Sloan has overseen the transfer from the island prison of 11 of them.  He is now reportedly working to transfer the less than 80 remaining individuals the Pentagon has cleared.

But there’s a catch.  No matter how many prisoners Sloan succeeds in releasing, President Obama has made it clear that he only means to close Guantanamo in the most technical sense possible—by emptying the current facility in one fashion or another. He is, it turns out, quite prepared to keep the Guantanamo system of indefinite detention itself intact and has no intention of releasing all the detainees. Those who can’t be tried—due, it is claimed, to lack of evidence—will nonetheless be kept indefinitely somewhere. Fewer than 50 prisoners remain behind bars without charges or trial until—as the formula goes—the authorities determine that they no longer pose a risk to American national security.  Although the population is indeed dwindling (Gitmo currently holds 155 detainees), the most basic aspect of the system, the strikingly un-American claim that suspects in Washington’s war on terror can be held forever and a day without charges or trial, will remain in place.

In other words, when it comes to his second commandment, the president will be able to follow it only by redefining what closure means.

3. Thou Shalt Not Keep Secrets.

The first issue that Obama singled out as key to his presidency on his initial day in office was the necessity of establishing a sunshine administration. Early on, he tied his wagon to ending the excessive secrecy of the Bush administration and putting more information in the public arena. Bush-era policies of secrecy had been crucial to the establishment of torture practices, warrantless wiretapping, and other governmental excesses and patently illegal activities. Obama’s self-professed aim was to restore trust between the people and their government by pledging himself to “transparency”—that is, the open sharing of government information and its acts with the citizenry.


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