Tortured History: Unearthed Memo Raises Contrasts Between Bush and Obama

A six-year-old memo from within the George W. Bush administration acknowledges that White House-approved interrogation techniques amounted to “war crimes.”

The memo has been obtained by George Washington University's National Security Archive and Wired's Spencer Ackerman. Photo: Mike Lynaugh/Flickr

The memo, which came to light this week, has attracted attention to what has changed since Barack Obama became the president, but it also raises questions about what hasn’t.

The Bush advisors tried to destroy every copy of the memo, which was written by State Department counselor of that time Philip Zelikow. The counselor examined various tactics like waterboarding – which simulates drowning – and concluded that there was no way they were legal, domestically or internationally.

“We are unaware of any precedent in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, or any subsequent conflict for authorized, systematic interrogation practices similar to those in question here,” Zelikow wrote.

On his second full day in office, President Barack Obama formally declined torture, banning the types of techniques Zelikow had objected to so strongly in his memo, writes The Huffington Post.

But while Democrats are using the released finding as evidence of a new post-torture era under Obama, human rights advocates claim that they see many ways in which the country’s moral compass is still askew – and in some ways even more so than before.

“If your baseline is the Bush years, it’s night and day,” said Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive. “If your baselines are a set of first principles, as the ACLU calls for, or as us openness advocates call for, then your situation is: Is the glass half full or the glass half empty?”

Obama refused to put legal action against those who may have engaged in law-breaking under his predecessor’s watch – explaining that he prefers to “look forward instead of looking backward.”

“The administration has clearly disavowed torture, and that is an important and welcome thing,” said Jameel Jaffer, a national security expert at the American Civil Liberties Union. “But they’re steadily building a framework for impunity.”

As for the issues like warrantless surveillance, “continuity is the rule and not the exception and in fact in some very important areas this administration has gone even farther than the Bush Administration did,” Jaffer added.

The expert also said the idea that the government can mark an American for death without any judicial oversight is something the framers of the Constitution “would have found totally foreign to the project they were engaged in.”

“I think there are many Democrats out there who are quiet because they trust President Obama,” Jaffer said. However, he added: “there’s no doubt that the power we’re giving President Obama will be available to a future president.”

Jaffer explained that another way things may be worse today than during the Bush period of American history is that at least that times, many people believed that things would change dramatically once Bush left office, and that his actions wouldn’t establish legal precedents.

“We didn’t worry so much about that because the Bush Administration was seen as an outlier and an aberration, and the Bush precedent wouldn’t have been seen as weighty,” Jaffer said. By contrast, “It’s not at all difficult to imagine [future presidents] citing President Obama in their defense of carrying out more targeted killings of American citizens.”

“Now we’re making many of these emergency powers permanent … and bipartisan. We’re enshrining these things into our permanent law,” explained the expert.

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