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Posted by on May 14, 2009 in Politics, Religion, War | 13 comments

Why Obama Had to Nix Release of Detainee Photos

“God save me from my enemies…and from my friends.”

The prayer is attributed to Martin Luther, but it might well fit President Barack Obama’s mood as he ponders recent statements made by some of his fellow liberals.

They’re hot over Obama’s decision not to release photographs of alleged terrorist detainees taken during the Bush Administration. The assumption is that the pictures will buttress the belief that under Bush, the US engaged in criminal interrogation techniques….

There is reason to believe that’s true and I’ve previously explained why, both as a Christian and an American, I find anything that smacks of torture completely abhorrent and never acceptable.

But, for several very practical reasons, even if his Justice Department and White House staff were to determine they had airtight cases against Bush, Vice President Cheney, or other members of the previous administration, the President cannot pursue such cases. Nor can he release the detainee photographs, at least at this time.

There are three main reasons for saying this, two of which have already been discussed a lot in the media. First: Obama’s impending speech seeking to convince Muslims that the US war against terrorists is not a war on their religion. The photos might so inflame peoples and governments as to negate the president’s new initiative before it gets started. Second: As some conservative supporters of the President’s decision, particularly the families of military servicepeople, have pointed out, release of the photos might endanger military personnel, the vast majority of whom have had nothing to do with questionable interrogation techniques.

But there’s a third reason, a political one, and it’s one that the President’s supporters would do well to consider, I think. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama promised a different kind of politics, not necessarily post-partisan, but respectful and substantive.

The appeal of that promise is obvious. For the past forty years, going back at least to the paranoid Nixon Administration’s enemies lists and dirty tricks, politics has become something like a bloodsport. Many political clashes have become unsavory legal ones, with partisan gridlock the reigning reality in Washington. Meanwhile, many obvious problems have been either ignored or given “a lick and a promise” treatment. While probably not fully prepared for the sacrifices necessary to address our past-due problems, many Americans were ready for the different approach that Obama intimated and so, voted for him.

The simple political fact is that a Democratic president cannot, at least at this time, take a former Republican Administration to court. Nor can a Democratic Obama administration press the case against the Republican Bush administration in the court of public opinion through the release of detainee photos.

Either action, irrespective of the merits of any allegations against members of the Bush Administration, will be interpreted as politics as usual and so, harm the Obama Administration’s capacity to pursue the agenda it was sent to Washington to pursue.

If John McCain had been elected president last November, the story would be substantially different. In spite of misgivings about McCain held by his fellow Republicans, he would be freer than Obama, as president, to pursue legal proceedings against Bush Administration officials, if the evidence warranted it, and to release detainee photos. In fact, there would be greater demand for these actions from a Republican administration because the charge of cover-up would be entirely plausible.

There’s a bit of an “only Nixon could go to China” air about this entire matter. In Washington’s partisan kabuki dance, you expect Democrats to oppose the actions of Republican Administrations. And, in the virulent politics of the past forty years, you expect partisans to clash in court. I don’t know what the statutes of limitations are on charges of torture. But supporters of President Obama would do well to be satisfied with their president’s new policies on torture and his announced intention of shutting down Gitmo, policies that will affect the future, rather than demanding that he splinter their winning coalition by insisting that the President dwell in the past.

A time may come when allegations of past torture can or should be pursued. But for now, Obama has bigger fish to fry. His supporters should know that.

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Copyright 2009 The Moderate Voice
  • jchem

    Obama knows what he is doing, and so the froth coming from the left can settle down. He’s against the release of these photos now, but they are most likely going to be released anyway. This stance allows him to have it both ways–the left will be happy when the pictures finally come out; Obama can claim he tried to keep them classified to win over any on the right.

    Here’s an interesting look at it: http://gawker.com/5253864/if-youre-angry-about-the-torture-photos-youre-being-played-by-obama

  • Ryan

    You find it completely abhorrent and never acceptable, and you also think that nobody should be punished for doing it. Well, that’s just wonderful. I’m sure future administrations will think twice before they torture people now. Mark will express his strong disapproval for their actions! Ooh, I’m scared already.

  • My apologies for picking your post apart…

    As some conservative supporters of the President’s decision, particularly the families of military servicepeople, have pointed out, release of the photos might endanger military personnel

    Sure it might make things a little worse, but compared to two ongoing and extremely deadly occupations, does this even show up on the radar? Besides, what does it say to the Islamic world if we cover this stuff up?

    Obama promised a different kind of politics, not necessarily post-partisan, but respectful and substantive.

    But not law abiding I guess… holding people accountable for war crimes might not be “respectful” I suppose.

    a Democratic president cannot, at least at this time, take a former Republican Administration to court. Nor can a Democratic Obama administration press the case against the Republican Bush administration in the court of public opinion through the release of detainee photos.

    Obama’s DOJ, operating outside of political considerations, should setup a special independent prosecutor. Releasing the photos is not pressing the case one way or the other, it’s lifting the veil of secrecy on government action. If the pictures show that Bush & co. engaged in torture, that’s not really Obama’s fault. But it is Obama’s fault if he covers for Bush.

    In spite of misgivings about McCain held by his fellow Republicans, he would be freer than Obama, as president, to pursue legal proceedings against Bush Administration officials, if the evidence warranted it, and to release detainee photos. In fact, there would be greater demand for these actions from a Republican administration because the charge of cover-up would be entirely plausible.

    I hate this “Only Nixon could go to China” line of thinking, especially in this situation. Is there honestly any level of illegality it wouldn’t allow Obama to cover up or just ignore from the previous administration?

    Obama should release the photos because a judge ordered him to do it, and because it would violate his own FOIA policies to not release them. Not prosecuting torturers is a violation of the law he swore to uphold.

    Also, McCain has already come out against prosecutions even though he believes the Bush administration engaged in torture. He’d likely have hid behind the same national security excuses as Obama.

    A time may come when allegations of past torture can or should be pursued. But for now, Obama has bigger fish to fry. His supporters should know that.

    When do you think it will ever be convenient to do this sort of stuff? It’s never going to be easy to investigate and prosecute high crimes like torture, but that’s not a valid excuse for ignoring the law.

    Part of making sure torture isn’t government policy in the future, and making sure interrogators can disobey illegal orders to torture is holding people accountable and possibly sending them to jail. Justice should also be done for the victims of our torture regime.

  • jchem

    Anyone else having issues with Disqus? Once again, my apologies if this turns out to be a duplicate.

    Well said Chris, but don’t you think these photos will come out eventually anyway? From the article I cited:

    “…since the Pentagon already agreed to release the photos before Obama’s reversal, it’s not in a terribly strong position to argue that the threat from anger in the Arab world is very substantial—if these photos will actually put soldiers’ lives in real danger, then why did you agree to release them before all your legal options were exhausted? By trying to take that argument to the Supreme Court, all Obama is doing is delaying the photos’ release and earning points as a moderate and loyal Commander in Chief. He knows that the photos will come out before his next election, and any lingering anger from his supporters will have long since dissipated.”

  • mikkel

    I’m not sure why it’s so hard for people to get that the “partisan battles” that people are tired are of policy disputes. This isn’t about policy, it’s about criminality.

    It’s not even about political crimes (i.e. Watergate) or domestic oriented stuff, it’s about international law and treaties we are obligated to uphold…and that other countries are obligated to prosecute if we won’t.

    It’s not even about international law, it’s about things that we use to distinguish between “civilized” countries and “brutal” ones (in quotes because there is a strong argument that it’s a very poor and morally smug way of doing things, but it still is).

    The measure of a person (or group) isn’t that they do the right thing when it’s easy, it’s attempting to do it when it’s hard. I still stand by my assertion that our country’s reaction to this shows that we are a morally sick society. We like to play dress up and have moral righteousness, and then whine about how life is so tough when it actually matters.

  • StockBoySF

    “In spite of misgivings about McCain held by his fellow Republicans, he would be freer than Obama, as president, to pursue legal proceedings against Bush Administration officials, if the evidence warranted it, and to release detainee photos. In fact, there would be greater demand for these actions from a Republican administration because the charge of cover-up would be entirely plausible.”

    Well… McCain would have gone along with what the other Republicans want, including not pursuing any charges of torture against the Bush administration. Apparently he felt he had to pick Palin as VP to placate the Republican base. McCain won the Republican primaries because he had the support of independents, who still thought of him as a maverick. However he lost much of that support when he let the base control him. If McCain were prez, he would have a mostly Republican cabinet and DOJ and this would have been one prosecution the Republicans in his administration would have fought tooth and nail to continue to cover up. If I recall correctly during the campaign McCain basically mimicked Bush on this… saying we don’t torture. In fact didn’t McCain back off on some of his anti-torture rhetoric during the campaign? I don’t recall the specifics, but I do recall being flabbergasted that he, who had been tortured, had seemingly changed his position for political purposes.

    I understand the logic behind a Republican needing to prosecute this instead of the Dems. But please…. we’re talking about Republicans here…. Even if McCain did want it, no one in his administration would be for it. And in the face of a Dem controlled Congress McCain would need to pick his battles carefully and get the support for programs he really wants. Prosecuting those who committed torture was never at the top of McCain’s list (and not even on it, as far as I can tell).

    But the third point is a good point- that Obama promised different politics… But as ChrisWWW pointed out, these were laws which were broken.

    And as mikkel said, “The measure of a person (or group) isn’t that they do the right thing when it’s easy, it’s attempting to do it when it’s hard. I still stand by my assertion that our country’s reaction to this shows that we are a morally sick society. We like to play dress up and have moral righteousness, and then whine about how life is so tough when it actually matters.”

    That’s pretty much my thought. And I feel that as a law-abiding Judeo-Christian, Western European based society we do need to own up to our mistakes, take responsibility for them and prosecute those responsible. Otherwise what moral and legal foundation do we believe in? If we can’t own up to torture, then how far down the list of crimes do we go before crimes become acceptable? Where do we draw the line? It seems backwards to me… that we should punish the most horrendous of crimes without a second thought.

    I think many people in the US approach life by striving to be perfect. It’s the idea of learning to accept our mistakes, and the consequences, and going forward. Moral and legal crimes like this just fester and rot the soul of our country.

  • HemmD

    May I ask just what justice is served by releasing these photos. Do we need to see the crime scene to decry the crime? If they were used in criminal cases as evidence that’s one thing; but if it’s only in the name of transparency, I again ask, to what purpose?

    One thing is certain, however, the photos are guaranteed to inflame the mid-east. Unlike jwest, I believe publicizing these photos would have a direct effect on the recruiting of new soldiers to fight our forces in IRAQ and Afghanistan. Isn’t this exactly the argument made against torture?

    Investigate the crime, but don’t give your enemy ammunition.

    Look at it this way. If the crime was child pornography, would you call it transparency or justice to put the pictures on the TV?

    • mikkel

      Well Mark pulled a bait and switch. He started talking about the photos and then snuck in “he can’t persue cases” then went back to photos, then back to prosecution and ended on photos again. Most of the comments here regarded his comments about charging officials.

      As to whether it would cause more recruits? I dunno, it may or it may not if people look at it as clearing the air. I’d like to know what some interrogators that have previously mentioned the impact of Abu Grahib, like the guy that led the Zarqawi targeting think.

      • HemmD

        Mikkel

        ” As to whether it would cause more recruits? I dunno, it may or it may not”

        I think that the propaganda benefits in the “backwoods” of Afghanistan and Pakistan are obvious. Possible recruits don’t watch CNN, so they won’t be presented the benefit of “clearing the air.” They will only be shown more proof of American barbarism and disrespect of Muslim values. That’s the message that allowed the ranks to swell for 8 years, and I can’t see why there is a question of effectiveness now.

      • HemmD

        Mikkel

        ” As to whether it would cause more recruits? I dunno, it may or it may not”

        I think that the propaganda benefits in the “backwoods” of Afghanistan and Pakistan are obvious. Possible recruits don’t watch CNN, so they won’t be presented the benefit of “clearing the air.” They will only be shown more proof of American barbarism and disrespect of Muslim values. That’s the message that allowed the ranks to swell for 8 years, and I can’t see why there is a question of effectiveness now.

        • mikkel

          I wouldn’t be so quick to assume about what access possible recruits have. I’ve run across some amazing accounts of where there is internet access, etc. — even in places where there is no steady electricity. The problem isn’t one of access, it’s about how terrorist recruiters frame it versus how much the general populace condones the recruiting. Just because something can be used as recruiting propaganda doesn’t mean it’ll be successful if it also makes the civilian populations more trusting.

          This is the big issue that hardly anyone (except for foreign security experts) have pointed out the last 8 years. The general populations there did believe that we had a war on Islam, where going to permanently occupy or just install puppet dictators (or be duped into supporting one side over the other), had double standards when it came to how gun happy our guys were and so on. At the very least they wanted us to leave. Even people that hate the terrorists and were glad that we invaded spent more time focusing on the fact we should have left. That was the main problem: at best a tentative unease and disinterest that recruiting was going on and at worst a support.

          I don’t feel I know enough to make that qualitative judgment, but it is far more complex of a process than is always presented and I hope he’s conferring with people that have been on the ground and personally talked to recruits to figure out what drives them.

          Actually I just thought of a very similar analogy. When Petraeus instituted the COIN manual he helped create, one of the parts was changing the rules of engagement. A lot of soldiers were upset because they felt that it was too restrictive and put their lives at risk. The theory was that it’d also cut down on civilian casualties and even armed neutrals (like all the militias going around that weren’t targeting US forces). While that implementation temporarily made things more dangerous for soldiers — there were several instances of them being injured or killed because they held fire until it was too late — very quickly (much faster than anticipated) the positive effects spread out and the number of attacks by religious non-extremists (i.e. Iraqi nationalists, those that were being paid, etc) plummeted.

          That wasn’t because the die hards stopped their propaganda or bloodlust, it was because there was a noticeable change that demonstrated goodwill and a commitment to respect Iraqis going forward. Not only did the communities stop participating in as many attacks, that was one of the reasons they started turning in all the terrorists that were hiding in them.

          • HemmD

            Mikkel

            You may be exactly right, and no upturn in recruitment will ensue. BUT (you knew it was coming)

            Consider that the only other pictures of this type created havoc and the “few bad apples” excuse certainly didn’t play in Bagdad or NY. The official story on these pictures is unfortunately the same. “Those guilty have been punished.”

            If release of these would actually open an complete investigation into just how torture disseminated out from policy decisions in Washington, justice would be served. I’m afraid that won’t be the case, however. They’ve already rounded up the usual suspects.

            It goes back to my original statement. If justice is not served by showing the pictures, then what other than prurient interest is served?

          • mikkel

            Well obviously! No non-American is going to suddenly decide we can be trusted just because of kabuki theater. We have to investigate, period. However, that is a highly charged political question, and by releasing the photos it would definitely move a lot more people into the pro-investigate camp, or at least the non-denial. Again though, I would leave that judgment to others if it’s worth it…

            Except as Chris said if there is a court order then they have to as a matter of law.

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