Apr 18th 2009

Expedience and the Torture Amnesty

President Obama's statement on releasing the Bush-era torture memos is a curious and depressing document, but it bears the marks of having been revised with care by the president himself. He takes the occasion to assure the country that a dark age has passed. At the same time he assures the agents of that darkness that they will be exempt from prosecution. The statement betrays an odd mixture of frankness and caution; the appearance of resolution, with a good deal of actual equivocation; a wish to channel the conspicuous truth to one's own cause without revealing a disadvantageous quantity of truth.

The best way to trace the path of the president's thinking is to examine in detail its three central paragraphs; the text, accordingly, is printed below a sentence at a time in boldface; my comment follows in brackets. Why, President Obama asks, was it necessary and useful that he release the torture memos?

First, the interrogation techniques described in these memos have already been widely reported. [If they were not reported, would it then be justifiable to conceal them? If not, why give this as a reason for divulging them?] Second, the previous administration publicly acknowledged portions of the program -- and some of the practices -- associated with these memos. [From the Cheney-Bush administration was extorted a long-delayed and self-serving acknowledgment, only after the truth became undeniable. This shows if anything how far the pressure of investigation and the threat of prosecution may succeed in bringing the truth to light. It does not show, as implied, that people in power have a tendency to tell the truth in any case. Only affected ignorance of the character of the previous administration could convert the timing and nature of its acknowledgment into a reason for the cessation of pressure. On the contrary: awareness of the circumstances of the admission makes an added reason for prosecution.] Third, I have already ended the techniques described in the memos through an Executive Order. [So a father of a delinquent son might tell his neighbors: yes, my son has committed serial acts of vandalism, arson, and assault, but I now have him under restraint; his crimes are in the past, and can safely be forgotten.] Therefore, withholding these memos would only serve to deny facts that have been in the public domain for some time. [But if they had not been in the public domain for some time, I might be justified in further denying them.] This could contribute to an inaccurate accounting of the past, and fuel erroneous and inflammatory assumptions about actions taken by the United States. [The projected outcome for the United States is here shown to trump the value of truth. We are free to release or suppress, edit, abridge, and transpose, just as we like, so long as our actions tend to cool inflammatory assumptions. We tell the truth in this case because to do so is the thing most to our advantage.]

The entire paragraph is slippery -- a tissue of equivocations. Outcomes are what it cares about. Justice, as justice, is not on the president's mind. The next paragraph turns from the reasons for releasing the memos to the reasons for protecting those who acted on the memos' permission (though contradictory advice was available, and knowledge of it did in fact inhibit some persons, including members of the FBI, from agreeing to follow the memos into the acts of torture the memos justify). Remember, in reading the sentences below, that President Obama is here describing not the men who refused to obey criminal orders, but those who did obey and who might therefore be suspected of having committed torture.

The men and women of our intelligence community serve courageously on the front lines of a dangerous world. [Yes, and some of them have delivered persons for interrogation into the dark back-allies of a dangerous world, in countries that practice torture. To our shame, we have turned out to be one of those countries.]Their accomplishments are unsung and their names unknown, but because of their sacrifices, every single American is safer. [Is every single American safer for the false imprisonment and illegal torments suffered by an innocent Arab whose sons and daughters learn of the wrong, and learn who committed it, and swear revenge against the country that did such things? Are we safer for this?] We must protect their identities as vigilantly as they protect our security, and we must provide them with the confidence that they can do their jobs. [A calculated distortion which confuses protection with impunity. Those who stood trial would surely be removed from the active service, and the identities of their associates protected by the court. This argument awards a life-contract to every employee of American intelligence, and life-immunity from prosecution for any crime. What sort of persons will clamor to join a service that affords such license?]

President Obama turns at last to address the country, in a tenor of conciliation of which he is the unrivaled master. Yet the deeper difficulties of genuine conciliation are a fact of moral life that he seems prone to simplify and misjudge. He invites mutual forgiveness before the enemies come into sight of each other's wrongs. He does this in many settings and on many issues. He builds the bridge before he sees the treacherous footing on either side.

This is a time for reflection, not retribution.
[A routine echo of Lincoln's Second Inaugural: this is getting to be a tiresome reflex in our new president. Not every human or historical context can earn the echo. To try individuals who have been accused of criminal acts, in a court of law, is not the same as exacting retribution against a country or region. If the ordinary course of the law is to be described as unseemly retribution, then all justice asks too severe a sacrifice of our self-love. Only in tranquil times, it seems, are we allowed to pursue justice as well as "reflect."] I respect the strong views and emotions that these issues evoke. [False candor. The dispute concerns judgments about justice. Judgments are not views, and judgments are not emotions. To describe one's opponent as "getting too emotional" puts oneself in the position of sober sanity, no matter how weak one's argument.] We have been through a dark and painful chapter in our history. [No. This tells a lie in the shape of a truth. We have been through a dark time. But we are many, and we are differentiated. Some, in that dark time, inflicted pain, and some had it inflicted on them. Some were victims, others were executioners. "We" did not all pass that dark time together, or in the same way; we do not deserve the comfort so lightly offered until we face the atrocities with a candor that approaches the whole truth.] But at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past. [Nothing will be gained except truth and the dignity of an honest self-reckoning.] Our national greatness is embedded in America's ability to right its course in concert with our core values, and to move forward with confidence. [A sentence for any leader, of any country, at any time. A sentiment for all seasons.] That is why we must resist the forces that divide us, and instead come together on behalf of our common future. [But truth does not divide us, unless we imagine our country to be dedicated to a value higher than truth. What could that value be? Justice, you say? But what is justice without truth?]

In an afterthought, President Obama reminds the nation that, though his conduct in releasing the documents and suppressing prosecutions before the fact may seem to have emptied the laws of their force, this is not a kind of action of which he generally approves. Nor is it a fair clue to what any chief magistrate properly means to do. We love the laws, though we defy them. George W. Bush, when asked on June 10, 2004 whether torture was ever justified, said it this way: "We're a nation of law. We adhere to laws. We have laws on the books. You might look at these laws, and that might provide comfort for you." So, laws on the books are a sort of consolation, in the absence of laws actually obeyed and kept in force. Barack Obama puts it this way:

The United States is a nation of laws. [And a nation in which the men and women who serve courageously as secret agents are not bound by laws.] My administration will always act in accordance with those laws, and with an unshakeable commitment to our ideals. [Except when those ideals conflict with "unity" and the overcoming of collective "pain": these are more important than accurate history or equality under the law.] That is why we have released these memos, and that is why we have taken steps to ensure that the actions described within them never take place again. [But if a future president reasons as you reason concerning the past, the actions described in the memos will take place again and again.]

The total effect of the release of the torture memos, with the suppression of all prosecutions before consideration of any case and any particular facts, is baffling and self-contradictory. It will be taken by persons with a taste for paradox as evidence of the president's ability to hold two opposed ideas in his mind at once. But his actions and words at this moment are deeply disheartening. They show how a high-sounding construction can be placed on actions whose expediency is clear on their face. There were simpler ways, after all, for the president to admit he cannot afford to alienate the present leadership of the CIA; that the disgraceful practices were in some degree condoned by a group from Congress, in both parties, whom the president would rather not incriminate; that with all the chatter about "taking the gloves off" and the sadism of the popular arts, the spirit of the country itself sank to a dark place in the time of the torture memos. Such an admission would not amount to a reason for surrendering the possibility of prosecutions; but it might begin a process of honest accounting. Nothing of the sort, however, was attempted by President Obama.

It may seem that the worst of the torture amnesty is that by exonerating those who committed illegal acts, it discredits any eventual prosecution of those who gave the orders. The release of agents from the imputation of criminal conduct also implies a redefinition of the acts themselves as not criminal; and if no crime was committed when a person did a thing, no crime was meditated when a person ordered the thing done. Yet the most revealing fact about the president's statement was not its logic of exculpation. It was rather the forgetting, the pressing out of the picture, of certain actors central to the drama.

For we know about these crimes only through the courage of those who dared to speak about them. And they spoke at considerable risk; both moral courage and physical courage were here involved. We know of the deeds of a David Addington or a William J. Haynes III only thanks to the efforts of an Alberto Mora or a Colonel Morris Davis. It should have occurred to President Obama to name these persons as those to whom we Americans owe the largest debt of all. He could have named them as people who by the nature of their deeds can be known and named. They were not secret agents but public exemplars of virtue, in the public life of democracy. The president should have named them, and should have made them the heroes of the day.

Should you wish to publish your own article on the Facts & Arts website, please contact us at info@factsandarts.com.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Nov 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "The first Russia, comprising those living in Russia’s two biggest cities, Moscow and Saint Petersburg, can pretend there is no war at all." ---- "Then there is the other Russia, the one you find in small towns and villages scattered across the country’s massive territory. Here, the Ukraine war is a source of patriotic pride,"
Nov 27th 2023
EXTRACTS: "I interviewed Wilders in 2005 " ---- "Frankly, I thought he was a bore, with no political future, and did not quote him in my book. Like most people, I was struck by his rather weird hairstyle. Why would a grown man and member of parliament wish to dye his fine head of dark hair platinum blond?" ----- "His maternal grandmother was partly Indonesian" ----- "Eurasians, or Indos as they were called, were never fully accepted by the Indonesians or their Dutch colonial masters. They were born as outsiders." ---- "Ultra-nationalists often emerge from the periphery – Napoleon from Corsica, Stalin from Georgia, Hitler from Austria." ---- "Henry Brookman founded the far-right Dutch Center Party to oppose immigration, especially Muslim immigration. Brookman, too, had a Eurasian background, as did another right-wing politician, Rita Verdonk, who founded the Proud of the Netherlands Party in 2007." ---- "A politician who might fruitfully be compared to Wilders is former British Home Secretary Suella Braverman. As a child of immigrants – her parents are double outsiders, first as Indians in Africa and then as African-Indians in Britain – her animus toward immigrants and refugees “invading” the United Kingdom may seem puzzling. But in her case, too, a longing to belong may play a part in her politics."
Nov 19th 2023
EXTRACT: "The good news is that the San Francisco summit was indeed an improvement on last year’s meeting. Above all, both sides took the preparations far more seriously this time. It wasn’t just the high-level diplomatic engagement that resumed in the summer, with visits to Beijing by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, and climate envoy John Kerry. Equally important was identifying in advance the key issues on which the two leaders could cooperate and eventually agree."
Nov 11th 2023
EXTRACT: "It would be naive to hope that the Russian government or US diplomatic outreach would prevent nuclear war in the event of a serious threat to Putin’s political survival. The risk that Russia’s Ukraine misadventure could culminate in nuclear nihilism demands nothing less than a systemic review of America’s options."
Nov 11th 2023
EXTRACT: " Hamas’s barbaric massacre of at least 1,400 Israelis on October 7, and Israel’s subsequent military campaign in Gaza to eradicate the group, has introduced four geopolitical scenarios bearing on the global economy and markets. As is often the case with such shocks, optimism may prove misguided."
Nov 10th 2023
EXTRACT: "The last two years have been catastrophic for investors in US Treasury bonds. By one measure, 2022 was the worst year for such investors since 1788. Bond prices are poised to fall again in 2023, making this the first time in US history that they declined for three consecutive years. But now the “smart money” is jumping back in."
Nov 6th 2023
EXTRACTS: "China’s economic slowdown could lead the CPC to embrace a militant form of Chinese nationalism in an effort to maintain public loyalty. This would spell trouble for Taiwan, the Asia-Pacific region as a whole, and China itself in the long run. Given the threat posed by China’s assertiveness, it is no surprise that Japan is increasing its defense budget and that other countries have decided to follow America’s lead and explore ways to support Asia’s liberal democracies." .... "The difference between China’s and Japan’s economic trajectories raises the question: Can a corrupt Leninist regime outperform a free society? Whatever the answer, China is facing an uphill battle."
Nov 2nd 2023
EXTRACT: "Of course, Putin owes his authoritarian mandate to Russians themselves. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians – reeling from rapid, profound economic changes and the new culture of consumerist individualism – grew nostalgic for the 'strong' state. Their superpower status, historic breakthroughs in space, and grand victories on the battlefield were all long gone. Trading their new freedoms for the promise of renewed imperial glory seemed like a good deal." ----- "After Stalin, the only time the state engaged so openly in such violent repression was under Yuri Andropov, who headed the KGB in the 1970s before becoming General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1982 (he died in 1984). -- Putin, who regards Andropov as a personal hero, has reinstated the Andropov-era 'disciplinary check-ups' of cultural institutions." ------ "We are dealing with people who want 'full revenge for the fall of the Soviet empire.' The empire they want to build will include Andropov-style control over every aspect of Russian life, as well as a grander claim of being anointed by God. Like the Orwellian equation “2+2=5,” it is a story that you would have to be insane – or brutally compelled – to believe."
Oct 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "The cost of electricity from solar plants has experienced a remarkable reduction over the past decade, falling by 89% from 2010 to 2022. Batteries, which are essential for balancing solar energy supply throughout the day and night, have also undergone a similar price revolution, decreasing by the same amount between 2008 and 2022. ---- These developments pose an important question: have we already crossed a tipping point where solar energy is poised to become the dominant source of electricity generation? This is the very question we sought to address in our recent study."
Oct 9th 2023
EXTRACT: "Sooner or later, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s destructive political magic, which has kept him in power for 15 years, was bound to usher in a major tragedy. A year ago, he formed the most radical and incompetent government in Israel’s history. Don’t worry, he assured his critics, I have “two hands firmly on the steering wheel.” But by ruling out any political process in Palestine and boldly asserting, in his government’s binding guidelines, that “the Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel,” Netanyahu’s fanatical government made bloodshed inevitable."
Oct 9th 2023
EXTRACTS: "....whereas Israel can prevail militarily over any of its enemies, albeit at an increasing toll in blood and treasure, it cannot stop the most dangerous threat of all—the deadly erosion, resulting from its continuing brutal occupation, of that moral foundation on which the country was established." --- "....the Israeli public must demand the immediate resignation of Prime Minister Netanyahu."
Sep 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "......today’s American body politic has little patience for long-term thinking. This was not always the case. George Kennan, first as a diplomat and later as an academic, devised the containment strategy that the United States used against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Andrew Marshall, as the head of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, pushed the envelope on US military strategy. And Henry Kissinger, of course, was the ultimate practitioner of what has been dubbed “Grand Strategy.” "
Sep 23rd 2023
EXTRACT: "In a recent CNN interview, Paul Krugman of The New York Times finds it hard to understand why ordinary American voters do not share his euphoric view of US President Joe Biden’s goldilocks economy – which appears to be neither hot nor cold. Inflation is falling, unemployment remains low, the economy is growing, and stock-market valuations are high. So why, Krugman asks, do voters give Biden’s economy a lousy 36% approval rating?" .... "what matters to working people is not the monthly or yearly price change taken alone. What matters is the effect on purchasing power and living standards over time. Whether these are rising or falling depends on the relationship of prices to wages. When wage growth exceeds price increases, times are generally good. When it doesn’t, they aren’t."
Sep 14th 2023
EXTRACT: "The fundamental lesson, then, is that the issuer of an incumbent international currency has it within its power to defend or neglect that status. Thus, whether the dollar retains its global role will depend not simply on US relations with Russia, China, or the BRICS. Rather, it will hinge on whether the US brings its soaring debts under control, avoids another unproductive debt-ceiling showdown, and gets its economic and political act together more generally."
Aug 31st 2023
EXTRACT: "TOULOUSE – The days between Christmas and the New Year often prompt many of us to reflect on the problems facing the world and to consider what we can do to improve our own lives. But I typically find myself in this contemplative state at the end of my summer holiday, during the dog days of August. After several weeks of relaxation – reading books, taking leisurely walks, and drifting in a swimming pool – I am more open to contemplating the significant challenges that will likely dominate discussions over the coming months and pondering how I can gain a better understanding of the issues at stake."
Aug 30th 2023
EXTRACT: "To the extent that international relations is an extension of interpersonal relations, how leaders publicly talk about their adversaries is important. US rhetoric about Putin, as much as shipments of F-16s, can push him – and thus the war – in various directions."
Aug 20th 2023
EXTRACT: "Since the end of World War II, the United Nations has been the cornerstone of the international rules-based order. While numerous other international agreements address issues such as chemical weapons, biological warfare, and regional stability, the UN has been entrusted with the overarching role of maintaining global peace and stability. What made it effective, at least for a while, was the support of the world’s liberal democracies and, crucially, the unwavering commitment of both Democratic and Republican administrations in the United States." ---- "That all changed with the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq, a sovereign country, in the face of fierce international opposition and without the UN Security Council’s approval. In doing so, the US severely damaged its own credibility and undermined the global rules-based system,... "Many of America’s current domestic political divisions grew out of the Iraq War. Whereas presidents like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower demonstrated that effective leaders can make the world a safer and better place, even in the face of great adversity, Bush’s presidency showed that the opposite is equally true."
Aug 20th 2023
EXTRACTS: "a period of parliamentary history between 1719 and 1772 called 'the age of liberty'. This marked the end of autocratic monarchy and the beginning of an era of parliamentary power " ---- "This was a period of large-scale legislative projects and freedom of speech became central to the idea of freedom from tyranny. The most important piece of legislation was the Freedom of the Press Act of 1766, a law that aimed to protect freedom of information as a means of promoting democracy. It has been amended since but its tenets remain the same. " ---- "Describing Muslims, to allude to the situation of the Qur’an burnings, as criminals would be criminal. But to burn the Qur’an is in itself not, according to the current formulation of the law, an attack on Muslims. It is rather seen as an attack on the religion of Islam. Such attacks are not illegal because the aim of the attack is not directed against a protected group of people but against a belief – an idea. That is not illegal."
Aug 18th 2023
EXTRACTS: "But if the dollar should lose its privileged place, what could replace it? At present, the euro, which accounts for 20% of global central-bank reserves, is the only currency that could realistically serve as a substitute. Its appeal, however, is undermined by the fragmentation of Europe’s national sovereign-debt markets, as well as lingering doubts about the European Union’s long-term viability in the wake of the UK’s departure.'" ---- "The Chinese renminbi, which accounts for less than 3% of global reserves, is not a serious threat to dollar hegemony. "
Aug 12th 2023
EXTRACT: "Around the world, supply is struggling to keep up with demand. Inflation remains stubbornly high, despite aggressive interest-rate hikes. The global workforce is aging rapidly. Labor shortages are ubiquitous and persistent. These are just some of the forces behind the productivity challenge facing the global economy. And it has become increasingly clear that we must harness artificial intelligence to address that challenge."