In the darkest days of the Bush/Cheney years Barack Obama declared, “Making government accountable to the people isn’t just a cause of this campaign–it’s been a cause of my life for two decades.” No one expected Obama to reveal all the secrets of the temple when he became president. But Americans did expect him to favor transparency and accountability. Unfortunately, with each passing week he stumbles deeper into the thicket of secrecy he promised to clear away.
The administration’s reversal of its agreement with the ACLU to release photos of detainee abuse by military and intelligence agents is unsettling and wrongheaded. Obama now argues, as his predecessor did, that revealing the truth “will further inflame anti-American opinion” and potentially endanger US troops. But this logic assumes that anger at the United States is provoked by photos–not the crimes they depict or the impunity they imply. Have these crimes been fully investigated and the perpetrators held accountable? Have adequate steps been taken to put an end to such abuses?
Answering these questions affirmatively and conclusively would be the best way to improve America’s standing in the world. As the ACLU’s Anthony Romero suggests, “Only by looking squarely in the mirror, acknowledging the crimes of the past and achieving accountability can we move forward and ensure that these atrocities are not repeated.” Obama has asserted that this reckoning has already taken place, that the people involved “have been identified, and appropriate actions have been taken.” But we can only gauge the veracity of his claim through a public airing of all the files on detainee abuse. The administration’s stonewalling, however, breeds suspicion that justice and accountability are still out of reach.
Obama’s decision becomes all the more disturbing when seen in the context of his administration’s announcement that it will “modify” rather than abandon the use of military commissions. Candidate Obama described these as a “legal black hole” that “undermines the very values we are fighting to defend.” He wisely argued, “Our Constitution and our Uniform Code of Military Justice provide a framework for dealing with the terrorists.” President Obama has abandoned that wisdom.
Obama has broken with the past by announcing plans to shutter Guantánamo, releasing torture memos and rejecting waterboarding. But he muddies the waters by compromising on torture photos and military commissions, and by rejecting calls for an independent investigation of the Bush/Cheney administration’s authorization of the use of torture. Indeed, there is mounting evidence that it used torture to extract “confessions” that provided false justification for invading Iraq–a grave accusation that deserves a full public hearing.
The prospects for a muscular Congressional inquiry have been blunted by Republican suggestions that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi approved Cheney’s schemes. Pelosi has pushed back with charges that the CIA deceived her, demands for the disclosure of the briefings and a renewed call for an independent commission on Bush-era torture. Only an independent panel–perhaps made up of former judges afforded the authority to compel testimony, assign blame and propose prosecutions–will be able to achieve accountability. As candidate Obama rightly said, Americans want to trust their government. If President Obama wants to restore that trust, he must rededicate himself to pursuing transparency and accountability, the great promise of his 2008 campaign.