Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The New President vs. Torture: Great Start, Much More To Do

First, credit where it is due: on torture, the new president has changed the game and the
 momentum. His executive orders are landmarks,  and their repudiation of the lawbreaking that’s been going on for the past eight years is historic.

But who’s perfect? There are some holes in the orders; and even in the best case scenario, there’s plenty more to be done.  On this continuing agenda, four tasks are top priorities.

First, plug up the holes: Two stick out: a “special task force”  will decide if there is to be “additional or different guidance” (e.g., exceptions to the anti-torture rules) for “depar
tments or agencies outside the military” (e.g., the CIA and its ilk). Will this result in some kind of “Jack Bauer” loopholes? It shouldn’t, but it’s distinctly possible; stay tuned. 

Also, the president is evidently keeping “rendition,” which means a green light to continued covert kidnapings, particularly in foreign countries.
This does not surprise me. Working next door to Fort Bragg NC, we’re smack in the middle of what can be called the “Torture Industrial Complex.” Two reputed CIA front co
mpanies, Centurion Aviation Services in Fayetteville  , and Aero Contractors in nearby Smithfield ,   have been linked to many, if not most of the “torture taxi” flights.

Over the past year, local anti-torture activists have watched both these companies e
xpand their facilities, with more growth on the boards. So while most other sectors of the economy here are collapsing, the rendition flight industry’s outlook seems quite sunny, thank you very much; new executive orders or no.

To be sure, we are told that future “renditions” will not include, or culminate in, torture or “black sites” imprisonment. Yet in the new executive orders, there is another exception, permitting captives to be held in foreign safe houses “on a short-term, transitory basis.” (But there’s no definition of “short-term” or “transitory” either.)

Thus the first priority is to keep these chinks of wiggle room from being stretched into actual loopholes.

This points us to the second major concern. How will we know if these good new policies are
 adhered to? More important, how will the president know?

Take the notorious “black sites,” secret CIA prisons. The one thing we know about them for sure is that they exist, because the president has ordered them to close, along with Gitmo.

But we don’t know how many of these prisons there are. We don’t know where they are. And we don’t know how many prisoners are being kept in them. (My guess: thousands since 2002.)

The chances are that very few people in Washington know either. Will that number include the President?

Keep in mind that we’re talking about a group of people (not just the CIA, but a whole sub-culture of “OGAs” -- Other Government Agencies) that encompasses an undetermined number of private contractors.

Secrecy is their reason for being. Concealment and deception are basic tools of their trade. And keeping higher-ups as ignorant as possible
 is standard procedure, either with their superiors’ connivance (“plausible deniability”), or not (Bay of Pigs).

So Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will check to make sure – really sure – that all these hellholes have been shut down (and not replaced with others) and their inmates – all of them, living or (maybe more important) dead – are accounted for? The CIA? The OGAs? The contractors? Can they be trusted to clean up their mess and own up to any “issues” such as, say, war crimes? 

As a practical matter, my nominee for this watchers’-watchman-and-cleanup role would be the FBI. The record as we now know it indicates that the Bureau steered clear of the torture business, hence they may be the only outfit with clean enough hands to do a reliable job.

And of course, the chance to really stick it to the arch-rival CIA after years of being sidelined would be a spur to the FBI getting as close to the bottom of this bottomless pit as may be bureacratically possible. Creative tension; checks and balances. What a concept.

Making sure torture has stopped; that’s the second priority. The third is accountability. Will there be any?

At this point, the jury is still out. From my perch in the boondocks, it seems the new president is torn: on the one hand, his conscience tells him there has to be consequences for war crimes, else the ability to torture with impunity will become an established White House perk, which is intolerable.

Yet doing the necessary investigations and then even the minimum number of prosecutions will surely set off a political firestorm, which at best will be a huge distraction from the work of pulling us out of the second great depression. 

Let me not discount or dismiss this dilemma. I don’t blame him for hesitating. Still, while ready to cut him some slack for timing, accountability is a bullet I believe the president must eventually bite. In the eyes of the world, it’s a make-or-break question, and I think he knows that.

Numerous weighty inside-the-beltway pundits have already been pleading the case for doing nothing, and letting their governing class buddies walk. Such defenses of the indefensible are beneath contempt, and to my mind were definitively discredited by Glenn Greenwald in Salon.

Yet even a round of war crimes trials would not be the end. Imagine that the black sites had been closed; the accountability probes were complete, and at least a handful of the main perps had been shipped off to Club Fed, or perhaps even the Hague. What will remain?

The victims will remain.

Hundreds. No, thousands. And their families.

What of them? They would doubtless find a measure of vindication-by-prosecution if some infamous ex-politicians and apparatchiks wound up wearing stripes. But that would hardly be sufficient.

The victims deserve a formal apology from the US government. They need compensation – reparations, restitution, damages, pick your term. And they require treatment.

These are the practical manifestations of justice, and the last is the one area in which the US may in fact already be equipped to do its duty. Numerous centers for the treatment of torture victims are already in operation. (A directory is here. ) This network may need to be expanded, however, if we ever do something like justice to the scale of victimization that has been involved.

In sum: the first crucial blows have been struck against the odious and criminal “Torture Industrial Complex,” and kudos to the new president for that. 

Now let’s continue to press him – and Congress – to make good on the necessary followups: 
-- to slam shut any creeping loopholes
-- to make sure it has stopped; 
-- to get to the truth and require accountability; and 
-- to offer practical justice for the many victims and their families scarred by these atrocities.

In the past couple weeks, I’ve heard numerous comments to the effect that, “Thank god torture is over with; great work, folks!”

The new president certainly has begun a great work; even so, those of us concerned to uproot and eradicate torture from the American system expect to be busy for awhile yet. 

Quite busy.

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