The day after three prisoners died at Guantánamo on June 9, 2006, the base commander announced that they had committed suicide by hanging themselves in their cells–an act of “asymmetrical warfare” against the United States. His comments grabbed headlines. When declassified documents subsequently disclosed that all three had been found not to be involved with the Taliban, Al Qaeda or any similar organization, and that two of the three had been cleared to go home by the Bush administration, it was barely reported in the US media. Then, last November, law students and faculty at Seton Hall University secured the Defense Department’s investigative file and revealed that it was filled with hopeless contradictions. The official claims of how the prisoners died were physically impossible. In a January article by Nation Institute fellow Scott Horton, Harper’s Magazine ran its own review of the deaths, leading with a bombshell: four soldiers who had been on guard that night came forward. The three prisoners had been removed from their cells and taken to “Camp No,” a black site at Guantánamo presumed to be used by the CIA or the Joint Special Operations Command. The prisoners did not return alive. The magazine went on to document in detail how the Obama Justice Department, confronted with these facts, continued a shameless cover-up.
The White House seems to believe that looking into the torture and abuse–and now homicide–scandals of the Bush era would stir up a hornet’s nest of GOP opposition and frustrate the administration’s domestic agenda. But staying the hand of justice on the torture issue gained it nothing from the Republicans, who accuse the Obama administration of being “weak on terror” no matter what it does. However, it has badly damaged Obama’s image, especially among progressives and independents, not to mention among America’s allies around the world. Obama’s lofty, even inspiring, words from the campaign and inauguration appear increasingly cynical and empty.
The White House mantra has been to “look forward, not back.” But how do we apply this principle to news that three prisoners died as a result of foul play in a secret torture center? Are the lives of these men, unjustly imprisoned for years, really so worthless? Crimes, by definition, occur in the past. Is Obama saying that crimes–even murders–should not be prosecuted when they are politically inconvenient? That attitude puts the lie not just to Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Oslo but to his oath of office.
There is a sensible solution to this matter. The Justice Department issued the infamous torture memos and then appointed a lawyer involved in the production of at least one of them to conduct its almost comical “investigation” into the new allegations. It has demonstrated that it does not warrant the public’s trust on these issues. The attorney general must therefore appoint a highly respected former prosecutor or judge as special prosecutor with full authority to investigate the matter and with security clearances that will permit full access to the people and records involved with Camp No. Leads should be followed wherever they go–even into the White House, if necessary. Charges should be pressed against all who are responsible either for the deaths or the cover-up. This is what justice and the law demand. Partisan politics cannot be allowed to stand in their way.