Business as Usual?

February 12, 2009

The past week has seen some alarming news stories (and bloggers trying to figure out how alarming) suggesting that the Obama administration may be backing away from commitments made on the campaign trail to end detainee abuse, promote American adherance to international human rights standards and bring greater transparency to Washington.

The Senate confirmation hearings for the new Director of the Central Intelligence, Leon Panetta, raised the most significant flag when he told Senators that he had no intention of holding CIA officers responsible for the policies they were told to carry out – effectively suggesting the historically discredited defense of “only obeying orders” would be given currency by the Obama administration.

Equally disappointing was the decision by Department of Justice lawyers to press for the dismissal of a civil case brought by five victims of the Bush administration’s rendition program against Jeppersen Dataplan Inc., the US-based flight services company that facilitated the renditions, advancing the same ‘state secrets’ argument employed by the previous administration.

The administration has also continued to block the release of 42 classified documents concerning the ill-treatment of British Guantanamo detainee Binyam Mohamed. The Bush administration threatened to drastically reduce intelligence cooperation with the United Kingdom if the documents were made public by the British High Court.

Just how concerned should we be? Andrew Sullivan of the Atlantic cautioned yesterday that the administration may simply be in a holding pattern pending a thorough review of their predecessors’ positions on a range of issues with long-term legal implications. This may well be so. However, those concerned about human rights and accountability must keep up the pressure for change.

President Obama has been consistent in his assertion that he is interested in looking forward not backwards and it is unlikely that any initiative to establish an accounting process for the widespread abuses committed under the rubric of the Global War on Terror will come from inside the administration unless political pressure builds on the President to act

The fact that the Chairmen of the Judiciary Committees of both Houses of Congress, Representative Conyers (D, Michigan) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D, Vermont) have called for the establishment of a commission of inquiry to investigate the abuses of the past seven years is a powerful step towards accountability. But it is only the first step in what will likely be a long journey.

Next week Amnesty International USA activists across the country will participate in a Congressional call-in week, urging their senators and representative to support an independent investigation into the Bush administration’s war-on-terror policies. Please join them in adding your voice to our campaign to end the culture of impunity that has blackened America’s reputation around the world.