December 16, 2016–With Barack Obama’s presidency rapidly drawing to a close there will be reflections on his accomplishments in many fields. In this one, on CIA torture, the record is distinctly mixed. The president declared his rejection of it, acted to end it, and then opened the door to continuation of these abominations. Obama assertedly did what he did because he wanted to look to the future rather than the past, but his administration has made it possible to turn back the clock.
In his very first days in office President Obama issued an executive order explicitly ruling out torture, limiting all entities of government, CIA included, to interrogation techniques listed in standard military field manuals. In a panic the CIA rushed to get the president to change a companion order that restricted custody and closed black prisons to permit it to still handle prisoners. The public clamored for a “truth commission” that would probe the dark arts practiced by the CIA in the war on terror. The spooks quaked in their boots. Mr. Obama, who had denounced torture in the U.S. Congress and on the campaign trail, looked ready to go the distance.
The president’s decision process remains murky even today. Instead he employed an intermediate strategy, ruling out any truth commission, simply declassifying the amazingly flawed legal memoranda used to “justify” CIA torture on George W. Bush’s watch. Even there he battled CIA officers desperate to prevent the opening of this material. The showdown came at an Oval Office confrontation between Obama and a slice of CIA brass in the spring of 2009. The president left his attorney general to decide whether or not to prosecute any CIA officers for actions in torture or such concomitant transgressions as obstruction of justice.
Attorney General Eric Holder kept the potential targets of these investigations on tenterhooks for a time, but one by one he took prospective prosecutions off the table. By then, of course, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) had begun its inquiry into CIA torture, which led the agency back onto the dark side as it strove to monitor the investigators and minimize their impact. The SSCI inquiry, and its torture report, completed in December 2012, dragged the White House directly into the center of the torture issue–and there Barack Obama failed to rise to the level of his convictions.
While the CIA was still at the level of surveilling the senate investigators, CIA actually stole documents from SSCI computer databases and justified its action as coming on White House orders. Presidential counsel denied that–but Obama’s lawyers never obliged the CIA to restore the purloined records. Once the SSCI report had been completed, the CIA dragged its feet on permitting its release. President Obama, who had publicly expressed support for opening the report, did nothing to hasten this action. When pressed to declassify the report himself, Obama gave the job to the CIA. When the CIA again stood intransigent, Obama had a senior official of his own staff act as mediator, primarily taking the CIA’s side. All these things helped the CIA evade accountability.
Barack Obama no doubt saw himself as protecting government officers who had carried out distasteful orders. But the practical effect of these actions has been to signal that CIA operatives can, with impunity, go so far as to torture. Enter a new presidential candidate–now president-elect–who promises far worse than waterboarding for CIA detainees. That Donald Trump can do that is possible, to a considerable extent, because of what Barack Obama did not do.
With no fanfare, shortly after the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, President Obama reportedly designated the Senate torture report as a “federal record.” This act will supposedly prevent further efforts to shred all copies of the SSCI report and totally erase it. That is too little and too late. Had there been a truth commission, had CIA officers been prosecuted for criminal activity, it would now be abundantly clear that torture is beyond the pale. Instead it is quite likely the American public will have to have this fight all over again. This will come out as a significant failure of Barack Obama’s presidency.