Expect the big civil liberties news of the day to be the release of a memo from the CIA related to torture. That’s all well and good, but that memo is about what happened during the Bush Administration, in the past, and President Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress have made it clear that they’re not going to allow any efforts to hold anyone accountable for torture that took place in the past.
Given that inaction, I think that we need to take extra care to hold Barack Obama and the congressional Democrats accountable for their actions on torture in the present. Yesterday, I focused on a particular aspect of congressional accountability for torture when it came to an amendment to the Defense Appropriations bill passed last week. The amendment was offered by Democrat Rush Holt, yet 31 Democrats voted against it.
That amendment was something you’re not going to read about in the news today. No journalists are reporting on it, but it gives an extremely important insight into the difference between what the Obama Administration says it’s going to do, and what it actually intends to do. The Obama Administration says it’s going to end torture, and restore open government, but it’s actually moved to protect illegal government secrecy in order to cover up torture. The Obama Administration continues that pattern with its position on the Holt amendment.
The Holt amendment passed last week has to do with interrogations. It would require the military to videotape all interrogations, except for tactical interrogations on the battlefield where videotaping is impractical. The measure was actually recommended by a military task force that was assembled by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at the end of the Bush Administration. In a document called The Walsh Report, the task force recommended that all military interrogations be videotaped in order to prevent torture and other forms of abuse and coercion, in order to protect military interrogation teams from false accusations of torture, abuse and coercion, and in order to provide better military intelligence.
Given the military’s own recommendation in the Walsh Report, and the way that videotaping protections soldiers and prisoners alike, it seems that voting for the Holt amendment would be an obvious decision. Yet, 31 Democrats and 162 Republicans voted against it. Why?
During the debate over the amendment last week, Republican Representative Howard McKeon offered a surprising reason for opposing the measure: The Obama Administration opposes it. McKeon presented the following statement from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, explaining why the Obama White House asked for the videotaping requirement to be defeated:
“The Department of Defense strongly opposes the provision because it would severely restrict the collection of intelligence through interrogations, undercut the Department’s ability to recruit sources, and impose an unreasonable administrative and logistical burden on the warfighter.”
It’s a bit bizarre, but Robert Gates is now arguing against the opinion of the panel of experts that he himself assembled, and the Obama Administration is giving political support to efforts by Republicans and right wing Democrats in Congress to block the prevention of torture.
The justifications for this reversal offered by Gates don’t make sense. There’s no logistical burden on the “warfighter” (is that a word?). The Holt amendment specifically provides an exception for tactical interrogations that take place on the battlefield, where videotaping may not be practical. The videotaping provision shouldn’t harm the military’s ability to recruit sources either, as there’s no requirement in the amendment that voluntary sources be told that they will be videotaped.
The protest from Gates that I am most bothered by is his claim that videotaping interrogations will “severely restrict the collection of intelligence through interrogations”. First of all, the Walsh Report makes it clear that the videotaping would actually make interrogations more successful, providing a better quality of intelligence than would otherwise be available. Secondly, it doesn’t make sense to claim that the videotaping of an interrogation would interfere with the collection of intelligence at all, much less “severely restrict” it, unless the military intends to use interrogation techniques, such as torture, that are illegal.
There’s reason for us to worry about such a possibility, given Barack Obama’s sudden insistence this spring that he must not release photographic and video evidence of torture. The Obama Administration’s move to oppose the videotaping of interrogations is yet another instance of Obama’s overall effort to preserve the government secrecy that made widespread violations of the Constitution and international law possible. The Obama White House appears to be concerned not just with keeping the torture of the past a secret, but with preserving a shroud over interrogations in the present, making torture and abuse likely to continue.