Since before taking office, President Obama has taken the “looking forward rather than back” stance on torture prosecutions, a morally dubious justification for forgoing a politically divisive and consuming process.
But, as you know from last week’s news cycle, he’s also — mostly passively, in response to ACLU lawsuits and court orders — permitted the release of previously classified (but widely reported) memos regarding the Bush Administration’s legal justifications for torture (among other quiet and passive policy rollbacks). And, on May 28, the LA Times reports, his administration will release previously unseen (and less-well-reported) photographs demonstrating systemic abuse of detainees in the so-called War on Terror.
In very well-sourced stories (hmm) such as this one, in Friday’s Washington Post, about the process behind the decision to release the memos, the president is depicted as a virtuous, clearheaded man insistent upon hearing both sides of the debate make a civilized case; he is also shown to be conscious of the political will and public sentiment on both sides, and his decision is described as being a mostly pragmatic one: everybody already knew what was in the memos anyway, really.
These torture memos — and, indeed, Dick Cheney’s increasingly raging, apocalyptic and inaccurate* defenses of the policies detailed therein — have the inevitable affect of shifting public opinion towards disgust and outrage. Through the person of Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the populist House of Representatives, the leftward part of the country is allowed to voice this disgust, and complain that the President is acting too slowly to serve the interests of justice. This is the first time I can recall, in the debate over torture, a mainstream public outcry and demand for a full accounting.
Does Obama want a commission on war crimes? I don’t know. I hope he does, he should. Two things, though, are clear. The first is that, for the sake of appearances and legislative ease, Obama is bound and determined to allow the national mood to make this decision for him. The second is that the Obama administration, without actually seeming to do so by choice, is allowing the gradual release of Bush-era documents which have the affect of altering the national mood.
* From the above-linked Post article: “CIA officers acknowledged that some foreign intelligence agencies had refused, for example, to share information about the location of terrorism suspects for fear of becoming implicated in any eventual torture of those suspects…” In other words, torture actually precluded the gathering of intelligence. Which is something interrogators have long been saying about individual interrogations, of course.