The Obama-Bush Doctrine

June 5, 2012

Protest Bush Canada
Activists protest former President Bush's visit to Canada

In an opinion piece published by the Washington Post last Friday by former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen asked why Amnesty International had not called for the arrest of President Obama for war crimes and claimed that a double standard is at work.

That is not the case.

Amnesty International called for President George W. Bush to be investigated for authorizing the use of torture on detainees in US custody. Torture is recognized as an international crime and states have an obligation to investigate individuals credibly accused of ordering its use who come within their jurisdiction.

It’s that simple.

President Obama, to his credit, outlawed the use of so-called Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, such as waterboarding and wall slamming, when he came into office. That is a significant difference between the two administrations.

While we are on the subject, Thiessen also tries to perpetuate the tired old falsehood that the use of coercive interrogation helped locate Osama bin Laden. In fact, we now know that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was able to lie about the identity of bin Laden’s courier even while being waterboarded.

That said, Thiessen is absolutely correct to observe that President Obama has continued many of the same policies first implemented by President Bush. Indefinite detention continues. Military Commissions are still operating in Guantanamo albeit with some minor adjustments.

Thiessen also states that rendition continues, although his phrasing is deliberately opaque. It would appear that here Thiessen is referring to rendition to justice as in the Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame case, rather than rendition to torture in the case of Maher Arar.

To the best of our knowledge there is no proven case of rendition to torture occurring on President Obama’s watch, although the possibility of US involvement in the rendition of Ahmed Abdullahi Hassan from Kenya to Somalia has been raised by the reporter Jeremy Scahill.

However, it is accurate to note that the Obama administration continues to shield those responsible for rendition to torture, such as the 23 US personnel convicted in absentia in Italy for the kidnapping of Egyptian cleric Abu Omar, even as European nations such as Poland and the United Kingdom investigate members of their own intelligence services who aided an abetted the CIA’s operations.

It is also accurate to note that the Obama administration lawyers have blocked attempts by individuals tortured in US custody, or rendered to torture by the US, to pursue redress in American courts.

Thiessen implies that the extensive use of drones (he credits President Bush for escalating their use and President Obama for merely continuing strikes at the same operational tempo) should be a matter of grave concern for Amnesty International and, of course, he is absolutely right. It is and we have formally communicated that concern to the White House.

Pakistan drone attack
Pakistani tribesmen carry the coffin of a person allegedly killed in a US drone attack. There have been more than 300 civilian casualties of drone strikes in Pakistan, including at least 60 children. (Photo by Thir Khan/AFP/Getty Images)

Thiessen is also absolutely right to note that despite President Obama’s stated commitment to transparency and his decision to release secret Bush-era interrogation memos, he has so far refused to make his own secret drone memos public.

This is indeed hypocritical. Like the use of torture, the use of drones is not likely to stand up well to public scrutiny. The President knows this all too well, hence the secrecy. The facts are probably not very palatable.

We know that the White House appears to be operating to a standard that regards any military age male in its designated (but undisclosed) area of operations as a legitimate military target, absent any intelligence demonstrating their non-combatant status.

This, in an environment where the majority of such men are likely to be neither members of the Taliban nor Al Qaeda, is unconscionable.

We also know that White House appears to be in a state of denial about the accuracy of US drone strikes.

The Obama administration continues to promote a narrative of near papal infallibility even though credible reporters have identified more than 300 civilian casualties of drone strikes in Pakistan by name, including more than sixty children, and despite the fact that, by the Obama administration’s own admission, three of the four US citizens killed in US drone strikes in Yemen to date were killed by accident.

As things stand the drones program is seen by many Americans as a success story. For the most part that’s because they don’t know that much about it. The Obama administration wants to keep it that way. As far as they are concerned, the less we all know, the better. It’s the new ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’.

But does the drone program amount to a war crime as Marc Thiessen suggests? That is a complicated question to answer. Unlike the use of torture, there are circumstances in international law and under the laws of war in which the use of lethal force can be lawful. Much depends on where, how and with what intent such force is used.

We do not, as yet, have sufficient evidence to make a determination regarding the legality of the US drones program. It has been conducted in secret and in places where it is very difficult to mount an effective investigation.

However, we are doing our best to monitor the situation and to raise concerns about drone use.

We will continue to bear witness and Mr. Thiessen can rest assured that Amnesty international will hold President Obama to precisely the same international legal standards as it does President Bush, or indeed any other actor on the world stage.