Is the Obama Administration Really Anti-Torture?


Candidate Obama strongly denounced the Bush administration’s practice of torturing individuals suspected of terrorism or harboring terrorists. Then upon being elected and with great fanfare he signed an executive order prohibiting the use of torture. However, much less fanfare surrounded his creation of a possible exception to the prohibition on torture in certain circumstances.

Obama’s nominee/appointee to head the CIA, General David Petraeus (which by the way further militarizes the Agency) surprised some lawmakers and anti-torture advocates during his nomination hearings last week:

Did General David Petraeus just change his position on torture?

[snip]

Udall was clearly trying to get Petraeus to reiterate his opposition to torture — he read back several quotes Petraeus himself had given saying such techniques are immoral and when they’ve been used, they’ve “turned around and bitten us in the backside.” Udall asked, “do you see torture any differently in a CIA context than in a military context?”

But Petraeus instead pivoted to the TV-ready “ticking time bomb” scenario, and said torture might be justified if you have a “special situation” where an “individual in your hands who you know has placed a nuclear device under the Empire State Building. It goes off in 30 minutes, he has the codes to turn it off.” Then he urged legislators to consider crafting such an exception into the law:

“I think that is a special case. I think there should be discussion of that by policymakers and by Congress. I think that it should be thought out ahead of time. There should be a process if indeed there is going to be something more than, again, the normal techniques employed in such a case. And again, I — I would certainly submit that that would be very helpful if that kind of debate could be held and if some resolution could be made as to what should be done in a case like that so that it is worked out ahead of time, rather than under an extraordinary sense of pressure in such a situation.”

Later, in an exchange with Senator John McCain, Petraeus said that he believed this should be “a nuclear football kind of procedure where…there is an authorization, but it has to come from the top.. this can’t be something where we are forcing low-level individuals to have to make a choice under enormous duress.”

As Spencer Ackerman noted, this isn’t a full-throated embrace of torture. Petraeus emphasized that the Army Field Manual, to which government officials are limited with the force of an executive order issued by President Obama, “does prescribe techniques that work.”

The problem is that for torture advocates, everything is a “ticking time bomb scenario.”

[emphasis added]

The so-called “ticking time bomb” scenario has largely been discredited. The question is, did Petraeus change his position because he will be heading up the CIA, an organization that has a long, distinguished history of using various methods of torture, irrespective of its legality?

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About Stacy

Attorney, Publisher, Foreign Policy wonk

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