We wouldn't want to inflame anti-American sentiment

Obama's excuses for covering-up torture evidence are as incoherent as they are dangerous.

Published May 14, 2009 1:39PM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II - Update III)

There are many bizarre aspects to Obama's decision to try to suppress evidence of America's detainee abuse, beginning with the newfound willingness of so many people to say:  "We want our leaders to suppress information that reflects poorly on what our government does."  One would think that it would be impossible to train a citizenry to be grateful to political officials for concealing evidence of government wrongdoing, or to accept the idea that evidence that reflects poorly on the conduct of political leaders should, for that reason alone, be covered-up:  "Obama and his military commanders decide when it's best that we're kept in the dark, and I'm thankful when they keep from me things that reflect poorly on my government because I trust them to decide what I should and should not know."  It's the fantasy of every political leader to have a citizenry willing to think that way ("I know it's totally unrealistic, but wouldn't it be great if we could actually convince people that it's for their own good when we cover-up evidence of government crimes?").

But what is ultimately even more amazing is the claim that suppressing these photographs is necessary to prevent an inflammation of anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world generally and Afghanistan specifically.  That claim is coming from the same people who are doing this:

Up to 100 civilians, including women and children, are reported to have been killed in Afghanistan in potentially the single deadliest US airstrike since 2001. The news overshadowed a crucial first summit between the Afghan President and Barack Obama in Washington yesterday. . . .

This week’s airstrikes took place in the Taleban-controlled area of Bala Baluk, in Farah province. US military officials in Kandahar said that the number of fatalities was nearer 30, but the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that the death toll was far higher.

Jessica Barry, an ICRC representative, said that an international Red Cross team in Bala Baluk saw “dozens of bodies in each of the two locations” on Tuesday. “There were bodies, there were graves, and there were people burying bodies when we were there,” she said. “We do confirm women and children.”

And doing this:

The Obama administration has told a federal judge that military detainees in Afghanistan have no legal right to challenge their imprisonment there, embracing a key argument of former President Bush’s legal team.

In a two-sentence filing late Friday, the Justice Department said that the new administration had reviewed its position in a case brought by prisoners at the United States Air Force base at Bagram, just north of the Afghan capital. The Obama team determined that the Bush policy was correct: such prisoners cannot sue for their release.

And this:

American soldiers opened fire and killed a 12-year old boy after a grenade hit their convoy in Mosul on Thursday. . . .

"We have every reason to believe that insurgents are paying children to conduct these attacks or assist the attackers in some capacity, undoubtedly placing the children in harm's way," a U. S. military spokesman wrote in an email on Saturday.

But eyewitnesses said the boy, identified as Omar Musa Salih, was standing by the side of the road selling fruit juice - a common practice in Iraq -- and had nothing to do with the attack.

And this:

The Obama administration is weighing plans to detain some terror suspects on U.S. soil -- indefinitely and without trial -- as part of a plan to retool military commission trials that were conducted for prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

And this:

In a federal court hearing in San Francisco this morning, a representative of the Justice Department said it would continue the Bush policy of invoking the 'state secrets' defense, which has been used in cases of rendition and torture.

And this:

The Israel Air Force used a new bunker-buster missile that it received recently from the United States in strikes against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip on Saturday, The Jerusalem Post learned on Sunday. . . .

Israel received approval from Congress to purchase 1,000 units in September and defense officials said on Sunday that the first shipment had arrived earlier this month ..

We're currently occupying two Muslim countries.  We're killing civilians regularly (as usual) -- with airplanes and unmanned sky robots.  We're imprisoning tens of thousands of Muslims with no trial, for years.  Our government continues to insist that it has the power to abduct people -- virtually all Muslim -- ship them to Bagram, put them in cages, and keep them there indefinitely with no charges of any kind.  We're denying our torture victims any ability to obtain justice for what was done to them by insisting that the way we tortured them is a "state secret" and that we need to "look to the future."  We provide Israel with the arms and money used to do things like devastate Gaza.  Independent of whether any or all of these policies are justifiable, the extent to which those actions "inflame anti-American sentiment" is impossible to overstate.

And now, the very same people who are doing all of that are claiming that they must suppress evidence of our government's abuse of detainees because to allow the evidence to be seen would "inflame anti-American sentiment."  It's not hard to believe that releasing the photos would do so to some extent -- people generally consider it a bad thing to torture and brutally abuse helpless detainees -- but compared to everything else we're doing, the notion that releasing or concealing these photos would make an appreciable difference in terms of how we're perceived in the Muslim world is laughable on its face.  

Moreover, isn't it rather obvious that Obama's decision to hide this evidence -- certain to be a prominent news story in the Muslim world, and justifiably so -- will itself inflame anti-American sentiment?  It's not exactly a compelling advertisement for the virtues of transparency, honesty and open government.  What do you think the impact is when we announce to the world:  "What we did is so heinous that we're going to suppress the evidence?"  Some Americans might be grateful to Obama for hiding evidence of what we did to detainees, but that is unlikely to be the reaction of people around the world.

If we're actually worried about inflaming anti-American sentiment and endangering our troops, we might want to re-consider whether we should keep doing the things that actually spawn "anti-American sentiment" and put American soldiers in danger.  We might, for instance, want to stop invading, bombing and occupying Muslim countries and imprisoning their citizens with no charges by the thousands.  But exploiting concerns over "anti-American sentiment" to vest our own government leaders with the power to cover-up evidence of wrongdoing is as incoherent as it is dangerous.  Who actually thinks that the solution to anti-American sentiment is to hide evidence of our wrongdoing rather than ceasing the conduct that causes that sentiment in the first place?

* * * * * 

For a discussion of why the release of these photographs is so imperative and the very real value they could generate, see here and here.

* * * * * 

Finally, here's Rachel Maddow and Jonathan Turley last night excoriating Obama for relying on core Bush/Cheney rhetoric and reasoning to justify the cover-up of this torture evidence:



UPDATE:  Federal District Judge Alvin Hellerstein (.pdf) and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals (.pdf) have both rejected the Bush arguments -- now the Obama arguments -- for suppressing these photographs, and held the the law clearly requires their public disclosure.

For those wishing to defend Obama's decision here (and, again, were any of you who are doing so criticizing Obama two weeks ago when he announced he'd release these photos?), please read these three paragraphs from Judge Hellerstein's decision explaining why the Bush/Obama arguments in favor of suppression are so bankrupt, along with his quotation of a passage from Daniel Patrick Moynihan's book arguing that "secrecy is for losers" and documenting how citizen trust in government secrecy is the linchpin of abuses of power.


UPDATE II:  The Washington Post's Dan Froomkin:  

In trying to explain his startling decision to oppose the public release of more photos depicting detainee abuse, President Obama and his aides yesterday put forth six excuses for his about-face, one more flawed than the next.

Read Froomkin's full column as he indisputably documents the truth of that claim.  


UPDATE III:  Compare this excellent article in today's New York Times by Carlotta Gall and Taimoor Shah about the effects of our ariel bombings in Afghanistan to Obama's claim that concealment of these detainee abuse photos is necessary to avoid spawning "anti-American sentiment" in Afghanistan, and see how persuasive you find that claim to be.

Federal Judge Hellerstein, rejecting the Bush/Obama argument for suppressing the photographs (clic to enlarge):


Judge Hellerstein, quoting Daniel Patrick Moynihan:  "secrecy is for losers":

By Glenn Greenwald

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