Obama's About Face on Torture

Yesterday, President Obama lifted the spirits of all who oppose torture and hope for a return to the rule of law in the United States. In a series of three executive orders, President Obama made major reversals on Bush Administration interrogation and detention policies.

President Barack Obama began overhauling U.S. treatment of terror suspects Thursday, signing orders to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, shut down secret overseas CIA prisons, review military war crimes trials and ban the harshest interrogation methods.With his action, Obama started changing how the United States prosecutes and questions al-Qaida, Taliban or other foreign fighters who pose a threat to Americans – and overhauling America's image abroad, battered by accusations of the use of torture and the indefinite detention of suspects at the Guantanamo prison in Cuba."The message that we are sending the world is that the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism and we are going to do so vigilantly and we are going to do so effectively and we are going to do so in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals," the president said.The centerpiece order would close the much-maligned Guantanamo facility within a year, a complicated process with many unanswered questions that was nonetheless a key campaign promise of Obama's. The administration already has suspended trials for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo for 120 days pending a review of the military tribunals.

Dennis Blair, Obama's nominee for Director of National Intelligence, made further encouraging statements during his confirmation hearing on Tuesday.

During a hearing that occurred as President Obama signed new executive orders rolling back Bush Administration detention and interrogation policies, Mr. Blair signaled a new approach on such controversial issues as eavesdropping without warrants and harsh interrogation methods used by the Central Intelligence Agency.“The intelligence agencies of the United States must respect the privacy and civil liberties of the American people, and they must adhere to the rule of law,” Mr. Blair said in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee….“I do not and will not support any surveillance activities that circumvent established processes for their lawful authorization,” he said in the testimony. “I believe in the importance of independent monitoring, including by Congress, to prevent abuses and protect civil liberties.”In an unusual comment from a man who will head the most secret agencies of government, he said, “There is a need for transparency and accountability in a mission where most work necessarily remains hidden from public view.”He said that if confirmed, he would “communicate frequently and candidly with the oversight committees, and as much as possible with the American people.”On the issue of detainee treatment, perhaps the most divisive security issue since 2001, Mr. Blair called torture “not moral, legal or effective” and said any interrogation program would have to comply with the Geneva Conventions, the Convention against Torture and the Constitution.

In a statement yesterday PHR's CEO, Frank Donaghue, said:

PHR applauds President Obama's swift action to reclaim America's legacy as a nation committed to the rule of law. The reforms enacted today represents a victory for human rights and a blow against the use of torture.

PHR's work on US torture is not yet done, however. Donaghue continued:

The desire to turn the page on the past seven years of detainee abuse and torture by US forces is understandable. However, President Obama, Congress and the health professions will not have fulfilled their obligation to the Constitution and medical ethics if we settle only for reform without accountability.

PHR is calling for:

  • A non-partisan commission to investigate the authorization, legal justification, and implementation of the Bush Administration's regime of psychological and physical torture—including a subgroup tasked with investigating the participation of health professionals in detainee abuse.
  • An end to the use of Behavioral Science Consultants (BSCs) in interrogations. The continued use of BSCs violates medical ethics and subverts the traditions of the healing professions.
  • A review by the President's task force of US interrogation and transfer policies to revoke Appendix M of the Army Field Manual. This section allows the use of sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, and isolation—tactics which can constitute torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment under U.S. and international law.

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