Obama DOJ: No Justice for Torture Victims

Glenn Greenwald is settling in at his new home at the Guardian and he writes about the Obama DOJ closing the door for good on any possibility of justice for the victims of the Bush torture policies. This has been obvious from the very start, but now it seems to be official:

The Obama administration‘s aggressive, full-scale whitewashing of the “war on terror” crimes committed by Bush officials is now complete. Thursday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the closing without charges of the only two cases under investigation relating to the UStorture program: one that resulted in the 2002 death of an Afghan detainee at a secret CIA prison near Kabul, and the other the 2003 death of an Iraqi citizen while in CIA custody at Abu Ghraib. This decision, says the New York Times Friday, “eliminat[es] the last possibility that any criminal charges will be brought as a result of the brutal interrogations carried out by the CIA”.

To see what a farce this is, it is worthwhile briefly to review the timeline of how Obama officials acted to shield Bush torturers from all accountability. During his 2008 campaign for president, Obamarepeatedly vowed that, while he opposed “partisan witch-hunts”, he would instruct his attorney general to “immediately review” the evidence of criminality in these torture programs because “nobody is above the law.” Yet, almost immediately after winning the 2008 election, Obama,before he was even inaugurated, made clear that he was opposed to any such investigations, citing what he called “a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards”.

Throughout the first several months of his presidency, his top political aides, such as the chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, and his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, publicly – and inappropriately – pressured the justice department to refrain from any criminal investigations. Over and over, they repeated the Orwellian mantra that such investigations were objectionable because “we must look forward, not backward”. As Gibbs put it in April 2009, when asked to explain Obama’s opposition, “the president is focused on looking forward. That’s why.”

On 16 April 2009, Obama himself took the first step in formalizing the full-scale immunity he intended to bestow on all government officials involved even in the most heinous and lethal torture. On that date, he decreed absolute immunity for any official involved in torture provided that it comported with the permission slips produced by Bush department of justice (DOJ) lawyers which authorized certain techniques. “This is a time for reflection, not retribution,” the new president so movingly observed in his statement announcing this immunity.

And on the two cases that are now closed:

The only exceptions were two particularly brutal cases, both of which resulted in the death of the detainee. One involved the 2002 abuse of Gul Rahman, who froze to death in a secret CIA prison in Afghanistanknown as the “Salt Pit”, after he was beaten, stripped, and then shackled to a cement wall in freezing temperatures.

The other was the 2003 death of Manadel al-Jamadi at Abu Ghraib, whodied in CIA custody after he was beaten, stripped, had cold water poured on him, and then shackled to the wall. It was al-Jamadi’s ice-packed body which was infamously photographed with a smiling US Army Sgt Charles Granier standing over it giving the thumbs-up sign.

A US military autopsy declared al-Jamadi’s death a homicide due to “blunt force trauma to the torso complicated by compromised respiration”. Autopsy photos showed “lacerations and multiple bruises on Jamadi’s feet, thighs and arms”, though “his most significant injuries – five broken ribs – are not visible in the photos.” …

So, those are the two cases which the DOJ this week announced it was closing without any charges of any kind being brought. Because the Obama administration has systematically blocked all other cases besides these two from any possibility of criminal charges, yesterday’s decision means that nobody in the US government will pay any price for the systematic worldwide torture regime which that nation implemented and maintained for close to a decade.

This is so despite the findings of General Antonio Taguba, who investigated the torture regime and said that “there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes” and “the only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”

You see, all that talk about America being a great moral country that believes in justice and the rule of law is just empty words. In practice, it rarely means anything at all.

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  • scorinth

    Now how in the world are we as citizens supposed to say “This is not justice, and this is not what America is supposed to be.” We can yell and blog all we want, but nobody listens, and nobody cares. Obama will be elected despite this travesty because he’s still better than the other guy.

    The department of justice is anything but, and the representative democracy that we’re supposed to have doesn’t represent anybody. I’ve never felt so powerless.

    (Somebody call the waaaahmbulance for me, please…)

  • Michael Heath

    Ed writes:

    . . . Obama DOJ closing the door for good on any possibility of justice for the victims of the Bush torture policies.

    Glenn Greenwald concludes:

    . . . yesterday’s decision means that nobody in the US government will pay any price for the systematic worldwide torture regime which that nation implemented and maintained for close to a decade.

    That’s possibly true but not for certain. Closing these investigations opens up the possibility of using international law. Whether the will and ability to prosecute these crimes exist at the international law is not certain either. Here’s Scott Horton at Harpers:

    . . . under the doctrine of command responsibility, which applies with full force to deaths in detention during wartime, when conduct producing death occurs, and those immediately responsible are not criminally investigated or prosecuted, the criminal accountability for the deaths passes up the chain of command. Because of the dubious circumstances surrounding the Durham investigation and the high probability that political, rather than legal, decisions dictated the outcome, the decision not to prosecute should result in the imposition of legal liability for the deaths on persons further up the chain of command.

    Second, the homicides in question occurred outside of the United States, and are under the criminal-law jurisdiction of several other nations. The Durham investigation appears to have been prolonged for at least eighteen months beyond its actual conclusion in order to provide a pretext to block related foreign criminal investigations. There is now no reason why those proceedings should not go forward. Indeed, a decision by the Holder Justice Department to establish a principle of impunity means, under established international-law concepts, that other prosecutors and courts are now free to proceed.

    (H/T Andrew Sullivan)

  • Funny that he still “looked backwards” to find bin Laden.

    I guess when someone else does something to us, it is justice to look back, but when the US is the alleged wrongdoer, we must only look forward.

    That is what makes us so exceptional: No one is above the law, except the US.

  • I would assert that this makes the Obama administration complicit in Bush’s crimes against humanity.

  • Michael Heath


    Obama will be elected despite this travesty because he’s still better than the other guy.

    He’ll get elected with the vast majority of voters being unaware of his actual polices on prosecuting those who tortured and other 4th and 5th Amendment matters. The mainstream media has decided this just isn’t worth covering and the conservative media certainly isn’t going to use it to attack this president since they advocate more of the same – arguing that the president is weak on terror. I read two liberal-leaning books on the early part of Obama’s first term, books mind-you – not short newspaper articles, where both hardly touched on Obama’s record on these matters.

    Now I do think there are other issues which deserve more press at this time, particularly the economy, the federal budget, along with our respective education and energy policies; but consider the enormous volume of media coverage this issue would by default get if President Bush, VP Cheney, and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld were all criminally prosecuted for their war crimes.

    And if I correctly recall, under the Reagan-signed treaty which remains in force, President Obama and AG Holder are also potentially culpable for failing to prosecute the Bush-era war crimes.

  • The USA won’t prosecute its own (besides, perhaps, a smattering of pawns), and it’s too strong (and, *cough*, too big a market) for the rest of the world to force justice upon it.

    Justice is for the loser. America is the winner.

    Lastly, U S A! U S A!

  • Johnny Vector

    C’mon now, we’ve known for 40 years that if the president does it, it’s not illegal. Also

    Sure all men are created equal.

    Here’s the church; here’s the steeple.

    Please stay tuned, we cut to sequel.

    Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Here’s what happened. As soon as Obama was inaugurated, someone from the CIA whispered into his ear, Remember what happened to Kennedy. The implication was that there are some things he should not look at too closely. He got the message.

  • tfkreference

    Wow, that’s a scary conspiracy theory, d Tom, but not much more than my thoughts ( in which the threat isn’t to his person, but to something more noble–it could lead to trials that make Nuremberg look like Judge Judy’s court).

  • Infophile

    Some days it’s harder than others to find a silver lining. The only way things will ever get better in the US is if the Republican party becomes so unelectable that they end up moving to the the left. Then, there’s a remote possibility the Democrats will move to the left as well, possibly by no longer being such hypocrites about matters like this. Doubtful, though. I honestly put higher weight on the prospect of a Tea Party splinter resulting in a new Republican party jumping to the left of the Democrats (the parties have switched liberal/conservative allegiances before), but that’s still unlikely.

    Most likely scenario: The US goes the way of the Soviet Union, and spends itself into a debt crisis, eventually starving corporate donors of influence, since the government won’t have spare money to spend.

    Less likely, but more optimistic scenario: A stream of democratic Presidents tilt the Supreme Court far enough to the left that actual justice begins to get done again. Simply repealing Citizens United would go a long way to solving problems in the US (though it certainly wouldn’t do everything, and even what it would do would take more decades to take effect).

    As for international justice, technically, any other country that signed onto the Geneva conventions is now obligated to prosecute these acts of torture, now that the US has dropped the ball, lest they also be in violation of it (they don’t actually have an option not to, the way it’s worded). Of course, they won’t. If they think about it, the US will quietly threaten trade sanctions against them, like what happened when Spain tried to prosecute Rumsfeld.

  • laurentweppe

    He’ll get elected with the vast majority of voters being unaware of his actual polices on prosecuting those who tortured and other 4th and 5th Amendment matters

    Oh no: they’ll know it: they’ll just spend the next two generations playing dumb to placate the bloodlust of torture fetichists; this Reminds me how France dealt with torture and war crime in its collapsing colonial empire (most notably Algeria): it was an open secret: for 40 years: everyone knew about it, no one was ever punished for it, the mere fact of demanding that the Republic principles be upheld warranted quasi-hysterical accusations of lack of patriotism and it took a general publicly admitting that Torture (an death squads) was systematic and government backed in an interview given in 2001 to burst the abscess. (and the harshest punishment given to Aussaresses, the general in question was to pay a little less than 40.000 euros in fine.)

  • gratch

    It’s terrible how, for this election at least, American voters have to decide WHICH civil liberties they’re willing to sacrifice to their leaders. Remember when we were children and taught that democracy was the best system because it meant the leaders were answerable to the citizens?

  • laurentweppe

    Remember when we were children and taught that democracy was the best system because it meant the leaders were answerable to the citizens?

    Oh but they still are answerable to the citizens. The problem is that Citizens who favor a state which torture its ennemies + Citizens who don’t want to openly challenge the sadistic impulses of the first group = Majority of the citizenry. The biggest irony in the story is that the american democracy is still working fine.