A short step in the march to
justice By Sreeram Chaulia
The decision by the administration of United States
President Barack Obama to release details of harsh
interrogation methods employed by Central Intelligence
operatives on al-Qaeda and other suspects during the "war on
terror" is a welcome development.
For a long time, accusations of torture and ill-treatment of
detainees at "black sites" have come from released victims,
their legal counsels and human-rights organizations. The US
Justice Department memos on the use of sleep deprivation,
water-boarding, stripping, insects and other inhumane
practices used by former president George W Bush's
operatives are admissions of the truth from an official
source. They put to rest any doubts about the veracity of
the claims made by former detainees.
Obama signaled a change from Bush-era impunity with an
uplifting promise in his first address to the
Congress in February that "America does
not torture". When the US state on its own publicizes the
seedy and illegal deeds of its agents under a previous
administration, it is an indicator that a new beginning is
being planned and the ground is being laid for an overhaul
of the means through which American national security is
The Justice Department memos confirm unambiguously the full
horror of former US vice president Dick Cheney's claim that
protecting national security was a "tough, mean, dirty,
nasty business". The CIA's torture chambers spread across
the world under the "war on terror" probably witnessed much
worse than all of Cheney's adjectives convey.
Bits of information began trickling out soon after Obama's
inauguration in January about some of the wrongs of the past
committed by the US military-intelligence complex. The first
major disclosure to emerge once Obama came to power was
about alleged corruption by senior US army officers in
Iraq's gigantic reconstruction scam.
An American arms dealer informed US authorities during
Bush's reign that "tens of thousands of dollars" were
stuffed into pizza boxes and paper sacks and delivered
secretly to American contracting offices in
Baghdad manned by colonels. Predictably,
the lead was suppressed as long as Bush was in charge. As
soon as Obama took office, it was reported that federal
authorities were "taking a fresh look" at the allegations.
Earlier this week, a
army sergeant was convicted of murder for
executing four bound and blindfolded Iraqi detainees and
dumping their bodies into a canal in Baghdad in 2007. Court
martial proceedings are usually kept wrapped in secrecy and
verdicts are not covered by the media like regular civilian
proceedings, owing to the principle that the army's morale
and image would suffer if its dirty linen was washed in
But the fact that the Obama administration allowed this
verdict delivered by US military judges in Germany to be
announced widely through the news media within the US and
abroad is again a pointer to its intentions to clean up the
jetsam floating around from the Bush legacy.
Historically, justice has often been trumped by
politics on the question of culpability of
the US military in overseas wars. When the My Lai massacre
of 1968 in Vietnam came to light, the court martial of
Lieutenant William Calley was widely covered in the American
media as another nail in the coffin of a deeply unpopular
war. Yet, hardly three years into his long sentence, Calley
was pardoned and set free by the Richard Nixon
administration in 1974.
Recent inquiries have shown that Calley was a mere fall guy
for My Lai because the massacre which killed more than 500
Vietnamese civilians was an illegal operation planned and
coordinated at task force level by a lieutenant colonel-rank
official in the US Army.
The American military's internal inquiry that was hidden
from public view concluded that 30 senior officers were
negligent and 14 were charged with crimes. Neither Nixon nor
any succeeding US administrations had the political will to
reopen this denial of justice. Obama's commitment to let the
truth come out is praiseworthy in light of the obfuscating
history of American presidential behavior towards the
criminal misconduct of the military in wars.
Some human-rights and legal experts are criticizing Obama
for not taking the Justice Department's torture memos
further and prosecuting specific CIA agents who committed
the abuses on detainees. The International Commission of
Jurists has announced disapproval of the blanket amnesty by
saying that "without holding to account the authors of a
policy of torture and those executing it, there cannot be a
return to the rule of law". The perception that the
perpetrators of degrading practices in the "war on terror"
are getting off without punishment is valid, but it lacks an
appreciation of the political minefield that Obama is
Shortly after Obama's inauguration, a chorus of political
and media voices welled up that the "war crimes" of Bush and
his neo-conservatives should be prosecuted or fully
accounted for through a "Congressional Truth Commission".
Obama shot down these balloons by holding that "I'm more
interested in looking forward than I am in looking
backwards". He expressed a similar sentiment when confronted
with calls to sanction prosecution of the CIA's torturers by
saying, "This is a time for reflection, not retribution."
Obama's philosophy of uniting rather than dividing
Americans, as well as the pragmatic requirement of
Republican support for his budget and
economic crisis management, were factors in turning down
radical demands for bringing all Bush-era culprits to book.
But if the Justice Department memos and the muckraking on
the US military's indiscretions in Iraq are considered,
Obama is not covering up the ugly past either. During his
recent trip to Turkey, he made a significant comment that
"moving the ship of state is a slow process as this
particular ship is like a tanker, not a speedboat". The
message was that he was trying, but the machinery of the
American state and establishment used to imperial ways
around the world cannot be transformed overnight.
While legal scholars are entitled to dispute a free pass for
CIA torturers, they may not realize the sensitivity of the
issue of American presidents confronting the entrenched
might of the military-industrial complex. Obama is a shrewd
operator who has learnt the lessons of the 1960s, when John
F Kennedy and Robert Kennedy were assassinated while trying
to shake up the national security system. Should Obama
endorse full-fledged prosecutions of all offenders from the
"war on terror", the infamous system could retaliate with
the instrument it knows best - physical violence.
Those impatient for the whole truth to come out and for CIA
and US Army officials to be pilloried in broad daylight have
to realize that Obama will be cautious and gradualist in
downsizing the influence of the Pentagon, the
forces and their vast panoply of defense
contractors, mercenaries ("private military firms") and
civilian bureaucrats. No intelligent American president can
launch a war against his own state's core pillars in a short
The question of grave injustices meted out during the "war
on terror" will linger for years to come, but Obama cannot
be faulted for not creating the political space in which
slow but definite accountability is being restored to the
world's most powerful military-intelligence machine.
His objective of halving the US's spiraling budget deficit
by the end of the first term of four years could well augur
a carefully orchestrated cut in the Pentagon's humungous
appropriations and an eventual reining in of the culture of
torture and covert operations that took root in the Bush
years. Even if all terror warriors are not adequately
exposed, Obama is certain to ensure that their ways will no
longer taint American foreign policy.
Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international
affairs at the Maxwell School of
Citizenship and Public Affairs in
Syracuse, New York.