Policies that were wrong under George W. Bush are no less wrong because Barack Obama is in the White House.
One of the most disappointing aspects of the early months of the Obama administration has been its unwillingness to end many of the mind-numbing abuses linked to the so-called war on terror and to establish a legal and moral framework designed to prevent those abuses from ever occurring again.
The president deserves credit for unequivocally banning torture and some of the other brutal interrogation techniques that spread like a plague in the Bush administration’s lawless response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But other policies that offend the conscience continue.
Americans should recoil as one against the idea of preventive detention, imprisoning people indefinitely, for years and perhaps for life, without charge and without giving them an opportunity to demonstrate their innocence.
And yet we’ve embraced it, asserting that there are people who are far too dangerous to even think about releasing but who cannot be put on trial because we have no real evidence that they have committed any crime, or because we’ve tortured them and therefore the evidence would not be admissible.
President Obama is O.K. with this (he calls it “prolonged detention”), but he wants to make sure it is carried out — here comes the oxymoron — fairly and nonabusively.
Proof of guilt? In 21st-century America, there is no longer any need for such annoyances.
Human rights? Ha-ha. That’s a good one.
Also distressing is the curtain of secrecy the Obama administration has kept drawn over shameful abuses that should be brought into the light of day. Back in April, the administration rightly released the “torture memos” detailing the gruesome interrogation techniques unleashed by the Bush crowd. But last month, Mr. Obama apparently tripped over his own instincts and reversed his initial decision to release photos of American soldiers engaged in the brutal abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We saw the profound effect of the disclosure of the photos from Abu Ghraib in 2004. Imagine if they had never been released. Now, in an affront to a society that is supposed to be intelligent and free, the Obama administration is trying to sit on photos that are just as important for Americans to see. The president’s argument for trying to block the court-ordered release of the photos is a demoralizing echo of the embarrassingly empty rhetoric of the Bush years: “The most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in danger.”
The Obama administration is also continuing the Bush administration’s abuse of the state-secrets privilege. Lawyers from the Obama Justice Department have argued, as did lawyers from the Bush administration before them, that a lawsuit involving extraordinary rendition and allegations of extreme torture should be dismissed outright because discussions of such matters in court would harm national security.
In other words, the victims, no matter how strong their case might be, no matter how badly they might have been abused, could never have their day in court. Jane Mayer, writing in the June 22 New Yorker, said of the rendition program, in which suspects were swept up by Americans and spirited off to foreign countries for imprisonment and interrogation: “As many as seven detainees were misidentified and abducted by mistake.”
The Bush and Obama view of the state-secrets privilege effectively bars any real examination of such egregious mistakes.
It was thought by many that a President Obama would put a stop to the madness, put an end to the Bush administration’s nightmarish approach to national security. But Mr. Obama has shown no inclination to bring even the worst offenders of the Bush years to account, and seems perfectly willing to move ahead in lockstep with the excessive secrecy and some of the most flagrant violations of the Bush era.
The new president’s excessively cautious approach to the national security and civil liberties outrages of the Bush administration are unacceptable, and the organizations and individuals committed to fairness, justice and the rule of law — the Center for Constitutional Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, and many others — should intensify their efforts to get the new administration to do the right thing.
More than 500 of the detainees incarcerated at one time or another at Guantánamo Bay have been released, and, except for a handful, no charges were filed against them.
The idea that everyone held at Guantánamo was a terrorist — the worst of the worst — was always absurd.
Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, noted that Mr. Obama had promised to bring both transparency and accountability to matters of national security. It’s the only way to get our moral compass back.
Bob Herbert is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times. This was published in The New York Times on July 23, 2009. © 2009 The New York Times.