Obama on Civil Liberties
By Jerome Grossman
In January I was watching the Senate confirmation hearing of President Obama’s nominee for Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Leon Panetta. How did we ever keep informed before C-SPAN?
As a passionate civil libertarian, I was so proud of Panetta as he denounced torture without any reservations stating that the CIA would follow the rules of the U.S. Army Field Manual and the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war. Then he said that the U.S. would no longer engage in rendition, the secret shuttling of detainees and prisoners to foreign nations who torture.
I was so happy that I had voted for Obama and had sent him a fat check. And Panetta became my hero, boldly changing the positions of the Bush administration and the secret activities of the CIA.
A couple of days later, quite by accident, I caught Panetta on C-SPAN again, before the same Senate committee, a surprise because the first hearing seemed to have covered all the questions. A senator asked Panetta a leading question on torture: “What would you do if you knew that a bomb, maybe nuclear, was about to be exploded and your prisoner knew when and where?” Panetta replied that he would ask for “additional authority”, that is, to torture in exceptional circumstances.
Panetta's position has moral and operational flaws. How can he be sure that the intelligence about a bomb is accurate? How does he know that the prisoner has the information sought and even if he does that he will tell the truth? If the exception is built into the system, won't it be used more and more to justify torture, to break down a prisoner by claiming the most extreme danger whether or not it is present?
Then another senator asked Panetta to expand his views on rendition. He replied,” I'm glad you asked”, and proceeded to modify his initial statements: The CIA might continue its “extraordinary rendition”, transferring prisoners to third countries even those known to torturer, relying on their assurances of humane treatment. Just what the Bush administration claimed for eight years while the contracting countries routinely tortured. The senator may have asked: Why send prisoners or detainees abroad at great expense for mere interrogation? Wouldn't that jeopardize later judicial prosecutions? How can the interrogators’ actions be controlled from another faraway continent? Is it a good idea to farm out aspects of our legal system?
The Obama administration has decided “not to change the status quo immediately” on these issues according to Gregory Craig, the White House Counsel. Civil libertarians ought to take notice and express their disappointment about these matters as well as the continuation of electronic eavesdropping of phone calls without a warrant.
It was clear that the White House was having second thoughts about the very important changes in civil liberties described as Obama policy by Panetta in his first appearance. That is unfortunate and unwise. In the election, the American people repudiated the way the Bush administration operated. There needs to be a dramatic change of direction, especially on civil liberties, and without hesitation. That is the prime reason why Barack Obama was elected president.