In January 2009, Barack Obama entered the Oval Office projecting idealism and proud to be the constitutional law professor devoted to turning democratic principles into action. In his first weeks in office, in a series of executive orders and public statements, the new president broadcast for all to hear the five commandments by which life in his new world of national security would be lived.
Thou shalt not torture.
Thou shalt not keep Guantánamo open.
Thou shalt not keep secrets unnecessarily.
Thou shalt not wage war without limits.
Thou shalt not live above the law.
Five years later, the question is: How have he and his administration lived up to these self-proclaimed commandments?
Let’s consider them one by one:
1. Thou Shalt Not Torture
Here, the president has fared best at living up to his own standards and ending a shameful practice encouraged and supported by the previous administration. On his first day in office, he ordered an end to the practice of torture, or as the Bush administration euphemistically called it, “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs), by agents of the US government. In the president’s words, “effective immediately” individuals in US custody “shall not be subjected to any interrogation technique or approach, or any treatment related to interrogation, that is not authorized by and listed in [the] Army Field Manual.”
No questioning of future terror suspects would henceforth be done without using standard, legal forms of interrogation codified in the American criminal and military justice systems. This meant, among other things, shutting down the network of secret prison facilities, or “black sites,” the Bush administration had established globally from Poland to Thailand, where the CIA had infamously tortured its captives in the “Global War on Terror.” With that in mind, Obama ordered the CIA to “close as expeditiously as possible any detention facilities that it currently operates and…not operate any such detention facility in the future.”
The practice of officially sponsored torture, which had, in fact, begun to fall into disuse in the last years of the Bush administration, was now to come to a full stop. Admittedly, there are still some issues that warrant attention. The continued force-feeding of detainees at Guantánamo is a case in point, but state-sponsored torture, justified by law, is now, as before the Bush years, illegal in America.