The Biden administration should avoid perpetuating the culture of impunity at the apex of U.S. leadership that undoubtedly emboldened President Donald Trump to commit human rights crimes both at home and abroad, argues one Guantánamo Bay defense attorney in an op-ed published Thursday by Business Insider.
Alka Pradhan, human rights counsel at the Military Commissions Defense Organization at Guantánamo Bay, writes that failure to hold government officials accountable for their criminal policies and actions seriously harms U.S. national security and foreign relations.
For example, writes Pradhan, “during the Bush administration, our use of torture wrecked our national security by weakening international alliances, degrading military operations, and even contributing to troop deaths (pdf).”
“When he took office in 2009, [Former President Barack] Obama almost immediately declared he was ending the United States’ torture program,” she notes. “Yet the Obama administration refused to hold anyone from the Bush administration accountable, insisting that ‘we’re going to look forward, not backward.'”
Not only did Obama break a campaign promise by failing to prosecute any of the Bush administration officials who planned, authorized, and implemented the global CIA and military torture regime, his administration actively shielded them from ever having to face justice for their crimes. Obama’s refusal to prosecute officials he knew committed torture-related crimes is itself a war crime under the Convention Against Torture.
While none of the Bush torturers ever faced the “reckoning” Obama promised, his administration did prosecute and imprison whistleblowers John Kiriakou and Chelsea Manning for revealing U.S. torture. As Pradhan notes:
Gina Haspel, who destroyed torture evidence at one of the CIA’s black sites, is now director of the CIA. Steven Bybee, who authored Justice Department memoranda permitting the use of torture on detainees, is now a 9th Circuit judge who ruled in favor of government immunity for torture. John Yoo, who infamously championed the president’s absolute power to crush the genitals of a child and now teaches at Berkeley Law, recently reappeared to apply his theory of absolute power to President Trump.
All of this, asserts Pradhan, has exacerbated a climate of impunity in which “the Trump administration has flouted the law on a nearly daily basis.” She writes:
The administration has created detention camps on the border, initiated illegal family separations that may never be rectified, and allowed police officers to kill Black Americans without consequence or censure. Most recently, the president created a false narrative regarding the election that led to threats of violence against elected officials.
“While these most recent events are shocking, they are also the direct consequences of the lack of government accountability committed under the guise of ‘national security’ that has been running rampant for decades,” writes Pradhan.
While Pradhan does not mention specific examples here, President Gerald Ford’s 1974 pardoning of his immediate predecessor, the Watergate criminal and former President Richard Nixon, as well as former President George H.W. Bush’s pardons of several convicted Iran-Contra felons, illustrate her point.
Pradhan says the incoming Biden administration “will have a chance to account for past and present crimes and they need to take it. That means a long and detailed look backwards at how America has evaded responsibility in the name of ‘national security.'”
However, Biden has given no indication that he intends to hold Trump or any members of his administration accountable for their crimes and other misdeeds. To the contrary—and in strikingly similar language to Obama and Ford—Biden transition team insiders recently claimed that the president-elect has said that he “just wants to move on.” And as Pradhan notes, “Biden is even considering the nomination of Mike Morell, a torture apologist, to the CIA.”
“It seems that the country has learned no lessons,” she laments.
“Take it from someone who knows the corrosive effect of impunity,” writes Pradhan. “I represent tortured detainees at Guantánamo Bay, where the U.S. government has perpetrated human rights violations shrouded from public view for nearly 19 years.”
When a “nation of laws” refuses to apply those laws to people in power, the law dissolves into a matter of opinion. Our leaders try to avoid assigning accountability so assiduously that they twist themselves into knots trying to create suitable euphemisms for heinous acts. That’s how we got “enhanced interrogation” instead of torture; “racially tinged” instead of “racist”; and “border security” out of illegally separating families and traumatizing their children…
Nearly 20 years after 9/11, half the country still approves of torture—one of the most serious international crimes. The illegal indefinite detention of brown-skinned men at Guantánamo Bay barely elicits a shrug from most members of Congress, despite the continued condemnation of our allies. This culture of impunity has never been so dangerous.
“The only way to demonstrate that America believes in the rule of law, and to achieve eventual unity, is to hold people accountable,” concludes Pradhan, “whether by investigations, truth commissions, or prosecutions. Otherwise, a ‘more perfect union’ will forever be out of reach.”