WHY NOT A ‘FULL, FRANK AND JUST ACKNOWLEDGMENT’?
by: Marie Cocco
April 28, 2009 Tuesday
TORTURE AND ACCOUNTABILITY H is interest, President Barack Obama
says, is "the achievement of a full, frank and just acknowledgment
of the facts."
His topic was the delicate question of what to call the slaughter of
1.5 million ethnic Armenians at the hands of Turkey during World War
I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, a festering historical sore no
American president can genuinely hope to heal.
But Obama’s professed desire for a complete and just accounting
raises the question: If it’s good for the Armenians, why isn’t
it good for Americans? Why can’t we also have a "full, frank and
just acknowledgment" of the facts surrounding torture and other
moral horrors that were carried out in our name during the Bush
administration’s global war on terror?
History demands it.
Obama doesn’t want to bog his administration’s ambitious agenda down
in partisan recriminations over past practices. Fair enough. But it
does not follow that no official inquiry should be held. There is
more to find out, because much information is still being kept secret
–sometimes by the very perpetrators of the shameful practices, who
press on in the courts, for example, to attain what they hope will
be a permanent shroud.
A copious report by the Democratic staff of the House Judiciary
Committee, released last month, provides a chilling compendium of
what we know, and what we don’t.
We do not officially know whether the "enhanced interrogation tactics"
used by the Bush administration were in fact criminal violations of
federal statutes prohibiting torture and war crimes. We do not know
what laws may have been broken through the use of "extraordinary
rendition." This was the practice of sweeping people up and
transferring them to secret CIA "black sites" or to countries –Egypt,
Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Pakistan, for example –where torture is
believed to be practiced.
We do not know how many people were jailed and interrogated in
this system. Estimates range from 100 to 150 to "several thousand
renditions of terror suspects," the judiciary report says. We don’t
know how a program of "rendition" that was occasionally used in prior
administrations to deliver a suspect to face prosecution in a country
where he was wanted on criminal charges metastasized into a global
sweep of those who were detained for interrogation. We do not know
what happened to "ghost" detainees held by the U.S. in Iraqi prisons
–prisoners who were never registered or identified and, for all we
We do not know the full extent of the warrantless wiretapping of
Americans that continues, in some form, to this day.
Sweeping this all aside in the interest of moving on isn’t a mark of
how mature our political system is. It is an indictment of it.
It acknowledges that we cannot withstand the clamor of television
talking heads –that somehow the distraction of their empty chatter
is as weighty in its consequence as the heinous acts that smear the
nation’s reputation. Do we really want to surrender to the purveyors
of partisan hot air? This is the ultimate capitulation. It shows
us to be so weak that we really should worry about how this act of
cowardice is perceived around the world.
We have a contemporary model for how to conduct a politically
sensitive inquiry properly, without undue theatrics and with respect
for classified information. It is the 9/11 commission, a sober and
thorough panel that explored systemic failures that preceded the
terrorist attacks and put to rest false claims –including the Bush
administration’s contention that Saddam Hussein somehow was behind
it. The panel operated outside the partisan hothouse of Congress,
yet drew freely on the expertise of those inside and outside the
government. Its final report became a best-seller, not because it
inflamed political passion but because it was unconventionally –and
thus, believably –dispassionate.
The Bush administration opposed the creation of the 9/11 commission,
then resisted with much force many of the panel’s requests for
information. In the end, determined lobbying by victims’ families and
their acumen at airing their demands in the media forced officialdom
to create the panel, and helped the commission surmount obstacles
that were placed in its way.
Now we have no tearful widows or orphaned children to plead on
television for a just accounting. But how we handle the grievances
of the voiceless and confront our own misdeeds is yet another measure
of our character. And yes, the whole world is watching.