Today is Law Day and President Obama has issued a lofty Proclamation, laced with noble platitudes, full of sound and formality, signifying nothing. His deeds belie his words. He continues to approve a “kill list” authorizing the use of drones, known to be killing innocent civilians and he continues to violate his oath of office to ensure the laws are faithfully executed by failing to investigate and, if warranted, prosecute President George Bush and members of his administration who authorized, and systematically used, torture against detainees in US custody.
In his Law Day Proclamation, President Obama reminds us that as a Nation, we are bound together by the idea articulated more than two centuries ago: that “all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In the years since that declaration, “we not only forged a Republic of, by, and for the people; we also set ourselves to the task of perfecting it, and bridging the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.”
After recounting worthy examples when our Nation held true to “the unifying promise of liberty,” President Obama declares that our “work is not yet finished,” and that “justice too often goes undone.” He urges us to “reaffirm the critical role our courts have always played in addressing those wrongs and aligning our Nation with its first principles” and he calls on us to “mark this occasion by celebrating that history, upholding the right to due process, and honoring all who have sustained our proud legal tradition.”
The right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Due Process? Sustaining our proud legal tradition by using our courts to align our Nation with its first principles? Yet Georgetown University law professor David Cole has written that “Obama has radically escalated drone strikes, continued military detention without charge and military commissions for trying terrorists, prosecuted more government officials for leaks than all prior presidents combined, maintained the discretion to render suspects to third countries, and opposed efforts to hold U.S. officials accountable for authorizing torture of terror suspects.”
And less than a month ago, the Constitution Project, a bipartisan watchdog group, issued a 600-page report which concluded that American intelligence and military personnel used interrogation techniques on suspected terrorists captured in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere that constituted torture and “cruel, inhuman or degrading” treatment, which violate U.S. laws and international treaties. The 11-member panel was co-chaired by Asa Hutchinson, a former GOP Congressman from Arkansas and undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush, and James R. Jones, a former Democratic Congressman from Oklahoma and Ambassador to Mexico under President Bill Clinton.
“After conducting our own two-year investigation, weighing the credibility of all sources and studying the current public record, we have come to the regrettable, but unavoidable, conclusion that the United States did indeed engage in conduct that is clearly torture,” Hutchinson said. “What sets the United States apart as a world leader, in addition to our military might, are our values and respect for the rule of law. All the available evidence led us to conclude that, for many of these detainees, the U.S. violated both international law and treaties and our own laws,” Jones said, “greatly diminishing America’s ability to forge important alliances around the world.”
The group unanimously arrived at its conclusion by examining what constitutes torture in a number of historical and legal contexts. The U.S. State Department has characterized many of the techniques used against prisoners in U.S. custody in the post-9/11 era – including interrogation methods like waterboarding, stress positions, extended sleep deprivation and cramped confinement – as torture, abuse or cruel treatment when those same techniques were employed by foreign governments.
The report also criticizes several decisions of the Obama administration, particularly its ongoing concealment of the details about torture by the CIA and military, as well as its less-than-clear policy on drones.” The report urges the president to direct executive branch agencies to declassify as much evidence as possible — consistent with legitimate national security concerns, and with redactions only where needed to protect specific individuals, to honor specific diplomatic agreements — regarding the CIA’s and military’s abuse and torture of suspected terrorists in U.S. custody. Specifically, the group called for declassification and public release of the recently adopted, but still secret, study of CIA interrogations by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence; the Report of the Special Task Force on Interrogation and Transfer Policies; all reports of the CIA’s Inspector General on the agency’s interrogation, detention and transfer of detainees; and all investigations by the Department of Defense into abuses of detainees by Joint Special Operations Command Special Mission Unit Task Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We believe an honest, informed and open accounting of our government’s handling of detainees in our war against terrorism will serve our country well in the future,” Hutchinson said.
Instead of issuing hollow Proclamations extolling the ideals of American law, President Obama should heed the recommendations of the Constitution Project. If he truly believes that all people have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, to Due Process and to upholding our proud legal tradition by using our courts to align our Nation with its first principles, he needs to immediately instruct his Justice Department to use the Report on torture, and the comprehensive evidence on which it is based, to investigate and prosecute any government official who broke the law.
Then and only then could we truly celebrate Law Day.