Politics

Obama Won’t Close the Door on Torture Prosecutions, But We Have to Kick It Open

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There was some question, with Obama’s statement on the release of the OLC memos, whether he was making a blanket declaration that there would be no prosecution of former torturers or torture-enablers, or whether he was being wishy-washy.

Today he was asked again. Wishy washy it is.

I take this as, more or less, reassuring.

It reaffirms my belief that Obama is, at worst, opportunistic, a fair weather civil liberties advocate. That sounds like damning with faint praise, and it is, but it’s also a heckuva lot better than the previous administration, for whom opposition to civil liberties was not a matter of convenience shimmying but of hardened ideology, and who took accountability as beginning and ending with an election every four years.

What Obama is indicating, and has indicated, is that he’s not particularly eager to have this matter be center stage, but nor is he particularly eager to get on the wrong side of it, and at the end of the day, he is willing to be persuaded/pushed.

For the record, that position does make clear that we should not expect Obama to take a principled, courageous stand on civil liberties. For those of us who voted for him on the hope that he would stand tall and do the right thing, because it was the right thing to do…eh, not so much. We civil libertarians have been waiting with bated breath to see what kind of a President Obama was going to be in these respects. His campaign rhetoric indicated he might have greatness in him. Some of his actions in office (continuing the Bushian line on habeas corpus, for instance) have caused us to fear that he might be a wolf in sheep’s (or a sheep in wolf’s clothing, I suppose). The reality that is starting to settle in is he’s just another politician.

However, I take his statement today more or less at face value. He is not, personally, particularly inclined towards prosecution, but he’s also more or less not willing to exert overt political pressure to close the door on it. He won’t grease the wheels, but he won’t throw up impediments either. I would certainly vastly prefer it if he were inclined towards positive action on the principle of it, but if the worst we’re going to get out of him is a blank slate waiting for the writing on the wall, I’ll take it.

Obama is clearly not going to be a messianic figure on this matter; he is not going to lead us to the promised land. But nor is he going to stand in the road with his hand to us yelling “stop”. We clearly can’t expect Obama to do the right thing. But I think we can also not expect him to do the wrong one. In that sense, this is not a “good news” sort of situation; it is an absence of bad news. And maybe that shouldn’t strike a positive chord with me, but my bar has been so lowered on civil liberties that I’m positively thrilled at the absence of bad news. At this point, I’ll take it, and it’s also worth noting that where action does hit the President’s desk, so far, his rhetoric has been mealy-mouthed but his actions have tended towards the right. That’s worth something too.

If at the end of the day all we get is immediately stopping the practice and the executive branch not standing in the way of further inquiry/action, that’s not ideal, but it’ll do pig, it’ll do.

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So where that leaves things is, ultimately, with the onus on us, the American public. So, let me suggest three courses of action.

The first: FireDogLake has a petition making the rounds, to be delivered to the Attorney General on Thursday. It says simply:

Given the seriousness of these crimes, we the undersigned call for Attorney General Eric Holder to immediately appoint a special prosecutor to determine if criminal proceedings are warranted for Justice Department lawyers who legalized these crimes, and the high level executive branch officials who ordered them.

I suggest you sign it.

Second, the only reason the OLC memos were released at all is the dogged pursuit of them by, more or less, a single organization, which has been in the trenches fighting the good fight for many years. I’m talking about the American Civil Liberties Union. Obama’s skittishness on this matter is a good reminder why the work they do is crucial no matter which party is in power or which way the winds are blowing. Instead of making a donation to a candidate this cycle, consider sending some help their way

And third, get candidates on record. Obama has made it pretty clear that he considers this whole thing to be a headache he’d just assume not to deal with. But he’s wrong in one critical respect: we can’t move forward until we faced our past (and hell, our present). If Congress doesn’t want to deal with it, fine, but make them put their names to that. One interesting path to that: start pushing for impeachment proceedings against John Bybee. It won’t pass, but make those f’ers vote on it.

Obama is not The One. He’s not Scott Bacula, jumping into the Presidency to right the wrongs of the guy whose shoes he’s stepping into. If we want action on this, we have to take it.