November 4 was indeed a transformative breakthrough for many black Americans, including the very young, for whom citizenship may now have a deeper meaning. Also joining the elation are many white Americans, maybe especially the surviving participants of the civil rights movement of a half-century ago.
I covered the 1963 March on Washington for Westinghouse Radio and was at the back of the stage, not far from Martin Luther King Jr. when he electrified the world. Barack Obama has now also electrified the world. When he walks up the Capitol steps to take his oath of office, he’ll be walking on steps—as Donna Brazile, the black political strategist reminds us—that were built by slaves.
But we have not yet entered the Promised Land. The now stronger Democratic majority in Congress is headed by the same parochial Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, both largely silent about the ravages the Bush–Cheney subversives have inflicted on our individual liberties and about the CIA “black sites” that the jihadists welcome as recruiting tools. Pelosi and Reid need leadership.
So, the exultant New York Daily News November 5 headline—”One Man Changes the Entire Nation”—is, to say the least, premature.
The new president is well aware that he needs more than the audacity of hope and the experienced, passionate constitutionalist Joe Biden to transform the Congress and fill Supreme Court vacancies with the antitheses of John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas. Whatever Congress can do to bring positive changes that affect many areas of our lives, the Court of Last Resort can reverse them.
On November 6, Obama received his first top-secret briefing from intelligence agencies, including the CIA. I wonder if Obama was informed that the intelligence reports of our allies are increasingly showing a wariness of working with our CIA for fear of being indicted by courts in their own countries for crimes against their laws and international treaties.
Although Obama won’t have time to deal with some of these issues right away, he cannot avoid the consequences for too long. Here is a grim example of what’s ahead for him: On November 6, on the American Law Daily website, Brian Baxter interviewed the London human rights lawyer, Philippe Sands, who has testified before congressional committees three times on what he revealed in his book, Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betrayal of American Values (Palgrave Macmillan). Sands said, “Within the past 10 days, the British government has initiated a criminal inquiry of potential individual responsibility of CIA and British intelligence officials for issues of detainee interrogation and abuse” (emphasis added).
Keep in mind that an Italian prosecutor has already issued arrest warrants for 25 CIA agents for the kidnapping and eventual torture of an Italian resident, and a leading Italian intelligence official has already resigned and is being investigated. Similar investigations of complicity are under way in Germany and other allied countries.
The case disturbing the British courts is that of Binyam Mohamed, held since September 2004 at Guantánamo. Mohamed’s British lawyers have sued British intelligence forces for their involvement in his imprisonment and torture by the CIA in Morocco and in the secret CIA “dark prison” in Afghanistan before being caged in Guantánamo. In the course of his shackled itinerary, Mohamed claims, CIA inquisitors often slashed his penis with razor blades.
One of Mohamed’s lawyers, Richard Stein, explains why the British judges overseeing his case, having received secret evidence, are considering charging American agents, as well as their British accomplices, for what happened to Mohamed. He says, “The [international] Convention Against Torture imposes an obligation on signatory states to investigate torture,” so “ultimately the British had little choice once they conceded a case had been made that Binyam Mohamed had been tortured.”
You too, President Obama, will have an obligation to investigate whether Mohamed has full use of his extremities, notwithstanding CIA Director Michael Hayden’s recent advice that since the morale of American intelligence forces is recovering from its low point after 9/11, it needs somewhat of a respite from undue critical barbs. It’s quite the opposite.
Nonetheless, President Obama, time is a-wasting because, as of this writing, Mohamed is being set for a trial at Guantánamo before one of those Bush–Rumsfeld military commissions that are grotesque mirror images of what used to be the American rule of law.
On November 5, the day after our President-elect’s victory, the outstanding British human rights organization Reprieve—headed by Clive Stafford Smith, who ought to be knighted for his penetrating representation of more than 30 prisoners at Guantánamo—released an utterly damning report, “Human Cargo: Binyam Mohamed and the Rendition Frequent Flier Programme.” The full version of the report actually claims to provide the identities of the CIA operatives and private contractors who shepherded Mohamed to his assignations and torturers. It, moreover, asks for a “full and open Congressional investigation into the crimes that have been committed against Binyam Mohamed” and requests the United States to turn over “all evidence of Binyam’s torture in Morocco, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo to his lawyers, including photographs of his injuries, interrogation logs, and any other relevant material.”
Obviously, I do not expect President Obama to dig into all of this on Day One, but he should soon get his staff going into Mohamed’s enduring traumatic experiences of American justice—with attention to full accountability for those in the previous administration who authorized the penis-cutting and other tortures.
A subsequent public statement by President Obama—citing the case of Mohamed and other victims of the CIA renditions—could do a hell of a lot to rehabilitate us around the world. His predecessor issued an executive order soon after 9/11, and then another in 2007, giving the CIA license to commit these kidnappings and the as-yet-unknown tortures in its secret prisons. President Obama, by his executive order, can cancel these CIA “special powers” and can persuade the Democratic-controlled Congress to pass a measure that will force the CIA to adhere—as do all of our other armed services—to the Army Field Manual that forbids torture.
John McCain voted against the previous bill, and Bush vetoed it after the House and Senate approved it. Now, you’re the redeemer, Mr. Obama.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 19, 2008