The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

March 18, 2009

Late on Friday afternoon, in a move apparently designed to give the media as little time to respond as possible, the Obama administration filed a new motion in the US District Court for the District of Columbia clarifying that the administration still asserted the authority to detain suspected terrorists indefinitely at the US Naval base in Guantanamo Bay.

The filing marked three departures from the policies of the Bush administration. First, the administration no longer asserted that this power derived from the executive office of the presidency but from the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed by Congress in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks.

Second, in a deliberately symbolic gesture the filing dispensed with the term “enemy combatant.” Third, the threshold for detention has been elevated to just those who are part of or “substantially support” the Taliban, Al Qaeda or associated forces, and excludes the category of “unwitting supporter”. 

How significant are these new positions? In short, beyond the symbolism of retiring a much overused term associated with the Bush administration, little has changed. The power to detain suspected members of Al Qaeda and its affiliates indefinitely and without charge remains entirely intact.

The Attorney General, Eric Holder, held out the possibility that there may be “further refinements” of the government’s position once the interagency review of detention policy is completed but this hardly hints at sweeping change.

The publication over the weekend of comprehensive excerpts from a 2007 report submitted to the United States government by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) concerning the treatment of fourteen “High Value detainees” held in CIA custody highlighted all too clearly why ‘staying the course’ is an unacceptable position for the Obama administration to adopt.

The report was leaked to the author of Torture and Truth, Mark Danner, and it leaves little doubt as to the dark and sordid waters to which this course leads. In the words of the report’s authors:

“The allegations of ill treatment of the detainees indicate that, in many cases, the ill treatment to which they were subjected while held in the C.I.A. program, either singly or in combination, constituted torture. In addition, many other elements of the ill treatment, either singly or in combination, constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

This finding is about as definitive as it is possible to get. It was compiled from interviews of individuals in US custody who had had no opportunity to collaborate on fabricating a shared story concerning their experiences. The assessment was conducted by an organization famous for both its discretion and neutrality that is charged with upholding the Geneva Conventions.  It is a damning indictment of acts that amount to war crimes.

And where did it get us? Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged architect of the 9/11 attacks, told the Red Cross:

“I gave a lot of false information in order to satisfy what I believed the interrogators wished to hear in order to make the ill-treatment stop…. I’m sure that the false information I was forced to invent…wasted a lot of their time and led to several false red-alerts being placed in the US.”

The Obama administration seems to be finding it very difficult to turn the page on one of the darkest chapters in recent American history. It is vitally important that we continue to keep up the pressure on them to reject the discredited policies of the Bush administration. The only change we can truly believe in, is the change we bring about for ourselves.