By Eugene Robinson
Before President Obama can do, he must undo. Repairing the damage that George W. Bush did to the nation’s values, honor and pride will be complicated and, at times, politically inconvenient. But nothing is more urgent, and nothing will ultimately reap more benefits at home and abroad.
The executive orders that Barack Obama signed Thursday concerning the detention of terrorism suspects are a beginning. Much more remains to be undone.
Obama’s campaign pledge to shut down the prison at Guantanamo was unequivocal, and his decree ordering that the place be closed within a year is really just an official promise to honor that pledge by a time certain. Guantanamo will still be in operation tomorrow. Obama gave himself and his advisers time to figure out how to honor their commitment, but it will be a great disappointment if concrete action takes anywhere near that long.
Guantanamo is more than a prison housing several dozen dangerous individuals and a handful of true terrorist masterminds. The name itself has become shorthand for the Bush administration’s arrogant disregard for international legal norms. In terms of America’s moral standing in the world and Obama’s vow not to abandon our nation’s noblest ideals for the sake of expedience, every day the Guantanamo prison remains open is a day too long.
I know it will take time to review the circumstances of each of the estimated 245 prisoners now being held there. I know that new procedures will have to be developed to prosecute suspects who were interrogated with methods the courts will consider torture, meaning that the evidence against them is tainted. I know that it has been difficult to find countries willing to accept some detainees who turned out to be innocent victims of the Bush administration’s detention policies. I know that moving suspects to federal or military prisons will provoke howls on Capitol Hill, especially from the members whose states or districts are forced to receive the prisoners.
None of this should take a year. An executive order becomes real when it is followed—promptly—with action.
More immediate and definitive, at least at first glance, is Obama’s order banning the Bush administration’s “enhanced” interrogation techniques, which critics say are nothing but torture hidden behind a sinister euphemism.
Obama limited all U.S. interrogators to the methods specified in the Army Field Manual, which forbids physical abuse. The order ends the practice of waterboarding, a technique of simulated drowning that was used during the Spanish Inquisition and the reign of the Khmer Rouge—and also, to our nation’s shame and dishonor, during the presidency of George W. Bush.
Obama said his actions, taken on his second full day in office, signal that “the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism ... in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals.” Implicit is an acknowledgment that the previous administration’s actions were not consistent with those values and ideals—and here is where Obama needs to go further.
There are many “known unknowns,” to echo Donald Rumsfeld, about the Bush years. We don’t know the full story of the secret offshore CIA prisons where terrorism suspects were held and interrogated. We don’t know the extent of the “rendition” program in which suspects were handed over to cooperative third countries for aggressive and reportedly abusive questioning. We don’t know the full extent of the administration’s warrantless domestic electronic surveillance.
And there are “unknown unknowns.” Given what has been revealed, isn’t it conceivable that the Bush administration took other measures that would curl our hair if they were revealed?
Obama should form an official blue-ribbon panel, some sort of “truth commission,” to investigate Bush’s conduct of his “war on terror” and then report to the American people. The point isn’t to prosecute anyone. The point certainly isn’t to reveal genuine national security secrets whose disclosure would put lives in danger. The point is to know, and to remember.
This nation’s ideals of due process, rule of law, humane interrogation, privacy and governmental openness are not mere embellishments. They are essential to who we are. By disregarding those ideals, the previous administration diminished us all.
A thorough investigation would be controversial and could make it more difficult for Obama to move ahead with his agenda in other areas. But as he said Thursday, we must honor our values “not just when it’s easy, but also when it’s hard.”
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group