It has fallen to President Obama to deal with the policies and practices of torture inaugurated by the Bush administration. He started boldly, ordering an end to the abuses, announcing the closing in one year of the detention camp at Guantánamo and releasing the Bush-era Justice Department memos authorizing torture. Subsequently, he seemed to grow cautious. He discouraged formation of an independent commission to investigate the torture and reversed a previous position in favor of releasing Pentagon photos of abuses and instead opposed release. In his May 21 speech at the National Archives, he seemed to try to create a framework for understanding his policies, but they remained very much a work in progress. He surprisingly embraced a number of Bush policies, including military commissions for trying detainees, the use of the State Secrets privilege to protect information in court and the indefinite use of preventive detention–all to be revised in ways that were left vague or unspecified. Yet among these reversals and improvisations, one very general preference has remained steady. Throughout, Obama has expressed a desire to concentrate on the “future” rather than the “past.” As he put it a while back, he is bent on “getting things right in the future, as opposed [to] looking at what we got wrong in the past.” Or as he said in the National Archives speech, “We need to focus on the future” while resisting those “with a strong desire to focus on the past.”
But can the United States really get things right in the future by turning away from the past? For one thing, the factual record is still incomplete. For another, the reasons for what went wrong aren’t as clear as they might at first seem. Why did the United States make the decision for torture? What changes does it portend for American life? It seems likely that getting things right will depend on having answers to these questions.
When the full history of the Bush administration is finally told, one event may prove iconic: the torture of the Al Qaeda operative Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who recently died, allegedly by his own hand, in a prison in Libya, where he was sent by the United States. Libi was captured in Pakistan in late 2001. At first, he was interrogated by the FBI, and he provided useful information on the inner workings of Al Qaeda. But more was wanted from him. The Bush administration, hellbent on justifying its forthcoming invasion of Iraq, was ransacking the intelligence bureaucracy to find or produce two things that, it turns out, did not exist: weapons of mass destruction programs in Iraq and cooperation between Al Qaeda and the regime of Saddam Hussein. Pressure to find evidence of both intensified in 2002.
At the same time, the practice of torture–authorized by the White House, the Justice Department and the Pentagon–was spreading throughout the intelligence and military establishments. Soon, prisoners were being tortured to provide evidence of the Al Qaeda-Saddam link. As Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff, has stated, the “harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002…was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and Al Qaeda.” And according to the recent Senate Armed Services Committee report on the treatment of detainees, a former Army psychiatrist, Maj. Charles Burney, has confirmed the charge. “A large part of the time,” he told Army investigators, “we were focused on trying to establish a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq and we were not successful…. The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish that link…there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results.” The CIA took custody of Libi and began to expose him to abuse. Next, it “rendered” him to Egypt, where he was subjected to, among other torments, severe beatings and confinement in a tiny cage for more than eighty hours. He then produced the desired false statements linking Al Qaeda with the Iraqi government.