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Why We Can’t Just ‘Look Forward’

Posted on Jun 9, 2010

By Joe Conason

Torture is no longer a pressing concern for the American public, if it ever was. The country’s attention has understandably turned to lost jobs, costly health care and spilled oil. Most Americans probably agree with President Obama that rather than dwell on the secret abuses of the Bush-Cheney regime, we ought to be looking forward.

Looking forward is one of those cliché s that always sound positive and sensible, and it certainly serves the president’s political interests. But the years of detainee abuse and constitutional violations cannot be dismissed so easily, because the past is still with us—and so are the dangers that drew America’s leaders toward the dark side.

That is why Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the retired commander of U.S. and allied forces in Iraq, repeated his call for a “truth commission” in a New York University auditorium on the evening of June 7. He joined a group of prominent writers, lawyers and actors in staging an extraordinary event titled “Blueprint for Accountability,” which sought to revive pressure on the Obama administration to fulfill its early promises to restore the Constitution, the Geneva Conventions and the rule of law. The house was packed, and there was a sense that the president’s supporters are deeply disappointed—and determined to demand that he live up to his word.

What sharply underscored their concern was a disturbing report issued the same day by Physicians for Human Rights, charging that doctors who observed “enhanced interrogation” sessions for the CIA may have participated in illegal medical experimentation on detainees.

By gathering data to assess the effects of waterboarding, painful stress positions, sleep deprivation, humiliating nudity, extreme temperatures and other abusive techniques, those doctors and other medical personnel risked violating both U.S. and international laws that prohibit such research on any human beings without their informed consent.


Square, Site wide

The CIA immediately and predictably denied the report, insisting that the officers who oversaw its “past detention program” conducted no such experimentation “on any detainee or group of detainees.” An agency spokesman assured reporters that its practices have passed careful scrutiny in multiple reviews by the government, including one by the Justice Department.

But the Physicians for Human Rights report is based on information found by the group’s researchers in thousands of pages of partially redacted documents released by the government in response to Freedom of Information Act lawsuits. Those documents suggest that doctors helped to enable “the routine practice of torture” by closely monitoring the physical state of prisoners undergoing interrogation—supposedly to protect them from the severe damage that would, in the opinion of Bush administration lawyers, skirt the edge of legality. Most legal experts believe that the practices condoned by those lawyers were indeed grossly illegal under both U.S. and international law.

The same documents also indicate that CIA medical personnel recorded every aspect of each simulated drowning session and collected detailed medical information that was then used to “design, develop and deploy subsequent waterboarding procedures,” according to the PHR report. The doctors prescribed the addition of salt to the water because they believed that higher salinity solutions would reduce the risk of illness, coma or death. They also sought to determine whether simultaneous or sequential application of various torments worked best, and analyzed other evidence of the “susceptibility” of prisoners to pain and suffering such as that caused by sleep deprivation.

“Such acts may be seen as the conduct of research and experimentation by health professionals on prisoners, which could violate accepted standards of medical ethics, as well as domestic and international law,” the report says. “These practices could, in some cases, constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Should the PHR report’s accusations prove true, then the United States took yet another step toward the criminality that our government once prosecuted at Nuremberg. That is a truth we must face forthrightly, as a nation, if we want to hold our heads up and look forward again.

Joe Conason writes for The New York Observer.

© 2010

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ThomasG's avatar

By ThomasG, June 13, 2010 at 1:44 pm Link to this comment

C.Curtis.Dillon, June 13 at 4:52 am,

In the moment everyone has the “free will” to look forward in the absence of a “causal relationship” that is inclusive of the beginning, the end, and all points in between, “cause and effect”, but to look forward and ignore a “causal relationship” is foolishness and relegates those who do so to the status of cows in the field who have limited prospects for the future; i.e., the slaughterhouse or a dairy herd.

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By C.Curtis.Dillon, June 13, 2010 at 12:52 am Link to this comment

Might I point out that almost every crime is prosecuted after the fact or there would be no crime.  We have not yet achieved ‘minority report’ status where we can see into the future so every time someone is sent to jail it is for a crime committed in the past.  Bush/Cheney committed crimes during their terms in office and should be brought to justice for this.  If they are innocent than no harm.  But, if they are guilty, we need to clear the record and draw a line over what constitutes criminal behavior.  Otherwise, a future president can simply point to their time and argue, quite rightly, that he/she is doing nothing worse than they did.  It is a slippery slope that Obama needs to avoid.

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MarthaA's avatar

By MarthaA, June 12, 2010 at 10:48 pm Link to this comment

T. A. Madison, June 13 at 2:35 am,


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By T. A. Madison, June 12, 2010 at 10:35 pm Link to this comment

One must assume that anyone not actively opposing torture is in effect supporting it through silence. That silence subverts the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the interlacing statutory, procedural, and civil laws that make the democratic safety of citizens possible. Those interlacing laws were under systematic attack throughout the Bush Administration years. Think of it for a moment.  Silence regarding torture makes even well intended Representatives part of a Fifth Column at odds with democratic culture.  Democrats and Republicans, all “Representatives” and all lawyers for that matter, are expected to be Constitutionalists.  They all take a vow to “defend the Constitution against all enemies both foreign and domestic”.  It is time for citizens to recognize the responsibility of citizenship, by holding Representatives to their democratic oath or hound them out of office.

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MarthaA's avatar

By MarthaA, June 12, 2010 at 9:34 pm Link to this comment

T. A. Madison, June 12 at 10:13 pm,

I agree with your post.  I wish President Obama would remove everyone from his administration that has anything at all to do with the DLC, Republican corporate controlled Democratic Leadership Council, then he would be able to make better decisions for the populace and the environment because he would not be constantly peppered with the corporations bottom line, profit, and could actually be able to concentrate on the best interest of the populace and the environment.

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By T. A. Madison, June 12, 2010 at 6:13 pm Link to this comment

To start I feel obliged to note that it is counterproductive to excuse and indemnify the last Bush Administration by saying “Clinton did it too”.  We did, after all, still surely have a Constitution and Habeas Corpus during the Clinton Administration.  Not to be forgotten is that he Bush Administration was entirely criminal.

However, it was Democrats that by a nearly unanimous vote withheld funding to President Obama’s effort to close the Guantanamo Torture Camp.  Democrats.  It may be that many would be culpable in World Court as one writer here suggested.  It is nonetheless a completely unacceptable outrage upon Democracy and American Citizens that this has not been dealt with forcefully.  One may, therefore, well imagine what the President is up against.

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By cheyennebode, June 12, 2010 at 1:44 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)


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By tazdelaney, June 12, 2010 at 11:22 am Link to this comment

something i have to mention almost daily…

obama told us all on 60 Minutes on the eve of his inauguration that, quote, “we don’t stand for torture;” that he would close gitmo within a year and return the country to the rule of law. then, with those words still fresh on his lips, obama on february 1, 2009, re-authorized the bush CIA’s rendition program of globally outsourced psy-ops torture chambers where accounts indicate far more have been disappeared and tortured than just gitmo. more than a year later, gitmo is still open but much more significantly, bagram AFB in afghanistan is now the new, enlarged gitmo.

‘confessions’ gained by years of torture are still deemed valid by military kangaroo courts. here in new york city, a young man accused of preparing to send raincoats to al qaeda was kept in solitary confinement 23 hours a day for over 3 years, a form of torture under the geneva convention.

truman was his own war criminal… nuking civilian hiroshima/nagasaki knowing japan was about to surrender and just wanting to show the next enemy, the soviet union, our new war toy… he also immunized large numbers of nazi war criminals and imported them into the new CIA and NSA in teh process of creating the national security state and increasing military-industrialism. but in 1950, he angrily denounced the koreans for torturing US GIs and ridiculed the notion that ‘confessions’ gained by torture could have any validity. he specifically referenced waterboarding, electric shock, long-term isolation as the tortures used. (the US CIA was at that time developing MK Ultra psy-ops torture which is still teh core of US torture tech…)

so drone-bombing civilians and continuing the bush-era tortures… obama is now his own war criminal torturer and must be charged as such, along with every single other person in the chain of command under bush and obama. personally, i think that congressmen and judges who voted for and ruled in favor of the wars and torture should also stand trial for their parts in massive crimes against humanity.

but the new nazis ‘just say no’ to nuremberg trials for themselves; showing that those germans were just amateurs… the simple, grim fact is that this evil empire will continue on its juggernaut path until either armageddon or environmental collapse… or until the world turns on it; overthrows, disarms and demilitarizes america as germany and japan rightly were after WWII.

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By rico, suave, June 12, 2010 at 9:54 am Link to this comment

Mr Conason:

The reason you can’t just look forward is that there are no scapegoats in the future. How can you envision a brave new progressive future when there is no Bush/Cheney/Zionist cabal to blame your inevitable future failure on?

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By DHFabian, June 11, 2010 at 9:13 pm Link to this comment

Let’s stop putting the blame on Obama, and start examining what we, ourselves, are doing to bring change. Before he became president, Obama was very clear about one thing: He would not be able to bring change unless the people got up and got actively involved. Well, that’s what the hard right did, but not anyone else. We have been the disappointment, not Obama.

Americans are so busy pointing the finger of blame at everyone else that maybe we don’t have time to do much else. We’re great at directing our collective, self-righteous outrage at anyone who does what we, ourselves, do. For example, we wag our fingers at countries where the rich turn their backs on the poor, even though we do this, ourselves. (Did you know that since our welfare “reform,” the infant/maternal mortality rates among our poor are among the highest in the modern world? But that’s not currently a popular topic.) We actually consider ourselves “peace-keepers,” even though we’ve been at war more often than not since WWll. And so on. The funny thing is, I don’t think most people are even aware of how hypocritical we are.

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By berniem, June 11, 2010 at 5:27 pm Link to this comment

Hey, does this look forward stuff mean that when I do something illegal, or whatever, I just need to say, “Gee, that happened last week; what good would it do now to come after me? I mean, let’s look ahead down the road and think about all the turmoil and stuff that trying to prosecute me will cause. We have so many more pressing problems in this country that hasseling me will just divert needed resources from solving them.” Do Ya think this approach can fly?

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By IchliebeSie, June 11, 2010 at 9:46 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)


I will read the book that you asked me to read.  Are you from Germany?  Do you live in Germany?  I live in Stuttgart.  What I can tell you that may or may not say in the book “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” is that the Nazis are no longer being in power, the destruction of our cities, the deaths of German civilians, and being under the bootheel of the United States (for 65 years so far) tells me that we received enough punishment and that our society did not get away with actions in World War 2 “scot-free”.  While we were able to end the France occupation during this time, it was replaced by the USA even to this day.

Will the leaders of USA and Israel, along with its citizens, be punished for invading other nations and “crimes against humanity”?  I do not think so.  Feel happy.  Please.

Hitler did warn the world not to give Palestine to the Zionists.  I guess he was proven right.

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By T. A. Madison, June 11, 2010 at 9:20 am Link to this comment

Torture overwhelms human standards and expresses every violation that can be perpetrated against a human being. We cannot adequately grasp its circumstances, its effects, its consequences, or its aftermath. It is a crime nonetheless - of inconceivable violence and depravity. Therefore, it is ridiculously reductive to only call torture a “crime”.  It obliterates all civil scales of reference.  We simply do not have a means to comprehend it.

What we can conceive is that torture unmistakably violates the Articles of the Bill of Rights thwarting the very intention of democracy and the US Constitution. We can also deeply sense, therefore, that torture is treason to democratic government and Rule of Law, but we have hardly been able to comprehend this or its implications to our society and laws.

Why hasn’t President Obama and Attorney General Holder prosecuted the war crimes of the Bush Administration?  Failure to hold government officials accountable for these crimes makes their repetition inevitable - someplace closer to us than before.  Torture is corrosive of all democratic values.  It is the ultimate corruption of power.

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By designer handbags, June 10, 2010 at 8:56 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Obummer now owns this, the way he also owns the two wars abroad, and the two wars at home. Obama is mad as hell, and wants an ass to kick for the oil spill. That’s all well and good, but what about killing innocent civilians, violating the Constitutional rights of US citizens, and detaining prisoners without due process of law?

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By jean Gerard, June 10, 2010 at 6:39 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It is revealing that people (on this site and elsewhere) keep saying Obama didn’t,
doesn’t, won’t clean up this dirty mess at Guantanamo and other prison sites.  He
this, he that.  And if the pronoun “we” is used instead, there is an outcry from
people who hasten to claim that “I did not commit this crime, so don’t hold me
responsible, don’t include me in your we.”

Which is it, then.  him, or us, or both?  And if it is both, what are we doing about
cleaning up our dirty messes?  Writing criticisms of “him” on Truthdig? Give him a
break!  We avoid doing anything for the same reason he avoids doing anything.

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moonraven's avatar

By moonraven, June 10, 2010 at 12:35 pm Link to this comment


Why not give back the land that doesn’t belong to you?

I have a feeling you won’t be quite such a good guy when it come down to YOU.

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By Jerry Gerber, June 10, 2010 at 12:24 pm Link to this comment

A large majority of Americans do not realize that since the end of World War II there is no country in the world that has killed, injured and deprived of livelihood more innocent civilians,including children, than the United States.  One can debate the meaning of this fact, but the fact remains. It is though the lives of innocent Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and others in Central American countries don’t matter. It is as if they are not even human and do not qualify for the same legal and moral standards that our government says it upholds. The United States has shown itself to be a frequent and habitual abuser of human rights, and it is both astonishing and tragic that there have been no individuals held to account and prosecuted for war crimes and crimes against humanity. What is disturbing to me is that even though our government is doing these things in our name and with our tax dollars, most Americans don’t seem to know, or want to know.  This is in itself a form of denial and evasion, because the sane and healthy human response to these many crimes and criminal policies should be one of shame, disgust and outrage, while the proper political response should be one of holding our leaders to account and prosecuting them for war crimes. We avoid these unpleasant realities at our peril.  It is not a coincidence that our hypocrisy and exportation of global violence is having an impact on our economy, our infrastructure and our standing in the world.  Sooner or later, the United States is going to have to pay the cost for its bad behavior.  It is my hope that the price is paid only by the individuals who are guilty, and that no more innocents pay for the crimes of those who abuse power and authority.

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By Tobysgirl, June 10, 2010 at 11:56 am Link to this comment

moonraven, I’ve missed you. The end cannot come too soon.

IchliebeSie, read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich to see what really happened to the Nazis. Yes, a few prominent people were imprisoned, some executed, but the truth is that the vast majority of people who actively participated in the Nazi regime, including the industrialists, walked away scot-free. It makes me feel sick when some 90-year-old guard from one of the camps is discovered in Cleveland or wherever, and “brought to justice.” Who brought to justice the bigwigs who supported, participated, and benefited from Nazism?

It isn’t true what Hitler said about nobody caring what you did if you are the victor. You can be the LOSER and no one will care what you did except the people directly affected and a few marginalized folks who care about justice. Just look at Vietnam. No reparations paid, no admittance of guilt, no responsibility, just endless sentimental crap about how the grunts died to protect our freedoms. Every time I hear that stuff I want to barf.

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moonraven's avatar

By moonraven, June 10, 2010 at 11:37 am Link to this comment

Why not begin by looking backward:  the genocide against 20 million indigenous folks in North America?

And then look at the ongoing genocide you are still committing with your system of APARTHEID?

Until you take care of this little matter of genocide, you aren’t going forward. 

You are going hell bent into the dustbin of history.

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Sole Prop's avatar

By Sole Prop, June 10, 2010 at 11:36 am Link to this comment

“Looking forward…certainly serves the president’s
political interests.”

Not if he’s looking for support from someone like me.

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By Jimnp72, June 10, 2010 at 10:47 am Link to this comment

All of the below is sadly true, but does not negate the fact that Bush, Cheney and
the lackey goons they used to draft and implement enemy combatant treatment
guidelines are war criminals.
Bush and Cheney have freely said so.
so what is justice for us is just ignorance to them
moving forward is B.S. and shows misplaced priorities

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By balkas, June 10, 2010 at 8:19 am Link to this comment

Correction: eight k yrs and not eught.

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By balkas, June 10, 2010 at 8:16 am Link to this comment

A much or equaly desirable timocratic guidance-tutorship and much pantisocratic governance wld have never ever allowed invasions of iraq and afgh’n and thus innocent people wld have never been abducted.

But as long as most americans are ruled- and this being an iniquity- we cannot expect good from an evil.

Iniquitous people cannot ever do good things. Evil people never take a rest from their evil doings.
In fact, the more evil they do, the more evil they’l do.
So expect use of N-weapons against innocent people and peoples.
Eught k yrs of evil doing by the ‘elite’ shows clearly that ‘elite’ only changes for worse!  tnx

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By Jim Yell, June 10, 2010 at 6:31 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The sad fact is Obama has validated the crimes of Bush/Cheney and is unwilling to prosecute and really doesn’t want to investigate the wrong doing.

This is not what he said he would do when campaigning and I think the voter is right to be disenchanted by his performance, which has been more right wing than even Center.

Of course, he is entitled to some sympathy in that he has gotten the Presidency right at the time that the Republican Crimes and the Republican theory of government have born the expected fruit of economic collapse and the dispolation of the middle class.

But, that said he has responded mostly by trying to work a deal with the rabid right. A party that clearly would rather distroy the country than form a consensus on anything. We are knee deep in oil not because of Obama, but because of Obama not being radical enough to counter the Republican destruction of Regulation as an obligation of government.

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thecrow's avatar

By thecrow, June 10, 2010 at 5:15 am Link to this comment

“He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.”

- George Orwell

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By Big B, June 10, 2010 at 4:07 am Link to this comment

Sometimes it’s satisfying to know that the true left was right all along about prez Barry. He is going to end up in the same place as poor pres Carter, he is just getting there on a different road. Carter was ultimately blamed for the mess left behind by Nixon and the original neo-cons (we americans have very short memories) and Barry is going to be blamed for the transgressions of the Bushies. And rightfully so, because he is in the big boy chair now. He wanted it, he campaigned for it, and now he’s got it.

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Fat Freddy's avatar

By Fat Freddy, June 10, 2010 at 3:45 am Link to this comment

Obummer now owns this, the way he also owns the two wars abroad, and the two wars at home. Obama is mad as hell, and wants an ass to kick for the oil spill. That’s all well and good, but what about killing innocent civilians, violating the Constitutional rights of US citizens, and detaining prisoners without due process of law? Shouldn’t he be mad as hell about that, also? This is why I refer to Obama as Obummer. He’s earned it. His presidency is turning into one big “bummer”, dude.

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By IchliebeSie, June 10, 2010 at 3:27 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I never understood the whole idea of “looking forward”.  To me this implies that all is forgiven and criminals are not brought to justice.  It seriously bothers me that the USA gets away with doing anything and everything negative throughout the world under the guise of supposedly doing the most humanitarian work.  What Bush Jr. and Cheney did is not forgivable.  Not to me!  I would very much like them punished.  I would like Wall Street CEOs punished.  I also want the CEO of BP punished.
None of these people will be because they are wealthy.  The President of the United States, the Uncle Tom-like slave to corporations that he is, talks a good game but will not do anything that punishes his massa - heads of corporations.

The world punished the Nazis for invading sovereign nations, human experiments (which increased our knowlege of genetics, by the way; so there was some good to come out of this, despite the unethical methods used), and torturing of prisoners.  Yet, the USA will not punished for doing the same actions with the excuse that the USA does a more mild version?  Hopefully, a day of reckoning will happen for the United States of America.  I will laugh as the USA never lives up to its creeds.  They give other nations a headache.  They would rather borrow money to wage war than borrow it for repairing their infrastructure.

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