Obama Defends Closing Guantanamo and Cleaning Up Bush-Cheney Mess

breakingthesilence_dianna_fCleaning up the Bush-Cheney mess will take some time and take careful and responsible work by this new administration. They must be guided by humanitarian principles and the clear separation of powers and protection of citizen’s rights outlined in the Constitution.

If you haven’t preached a sermon on what’s wrong with torture, I suggest you get on it! (Read Back to Basics: T is for Torture to understand why we need to teach from the pulpit that torture is a sin.)

Preach with the lectionary in one hand and President Obama’s national security speech in the other. Consider using Psalm 1, if you’re using the Revised Common Lectionary:

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night.

Or Ephesians 1:20-21, on this Christ who was tortured, if you are using the Ascension readings:

God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.

Following is an exerpt from the text of President Obama’s speech this morning on national security issues, as released by the White House.

We’re currently launching a review of current policies by all those agencies responsible for the classification of documents to determine where reforms are possible, and to assure that the other branches of government will be in a position to review executive branch decisions on these matters. Because in our system of checks and balances, someone must always watch over the watchers — especially when it comes to sensitive administration — information.

Now, along these same lines, my administration is also confronting challenges to what is known as the “state secrets” privilege. This is a doctrine that allows the government to challenge legal cases involving secret programs. It’s been used by many past Presidents — Republican and Democrat — for many decades. And while this principle is absolutely necessary in some circumstances to protect national security, I am concerned that it has been over-used. It is also currently the subject of a wide range of lawsuits. So let me lay out some principles here. We must not protect information merely because it reveals the violation of a law or embarrassment to the government. And that’s why my administration is nearing completion of a thorough review of this practice.

And we plan to embrace several principles for reform. We will apply a stricter legal test to material that can be protected under the state secrets privilege. We will not assert the privilege in court without first following our own formal process, including review by a Justice Department committee and the personal approval of the Attorney General. And each year we will voluntarily report to Congress when we have invoked the privilege and why because, as I said before, there must be proper oversight over our actions.

On all these matters related to the disclosure of sensitive information, I wish I could say that there was some simple formula out there to be had. There is not. These often involve tough calls, involve competing concerns, and they require a surgical approach. But the common thread that runs through all of my decisions is simple: We will safeguard what we must to protect the American people, but we will also ensure the accountability and oversight that is the hallmark of our constitutional system. I will never hide the truth because it’s uncomfortable. I will deal with Congress and the courts as co-equal branches of government. I will tell the American people what I know and don’t know, and when I release something publicly or keep something secret, I will tell you why.

Read his whole speech here.

Why We Need to Indict on Torture

botero-woman-for-web-029I’m digging around in the Torture Memos and came across this Senate Armed Services Committee report from last December. Here’s  a quote from the introductory summation:

“The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of a ‘few bad apples’ acting on their own. The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees. Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strenthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority.”—U.S. Senate Armed Services Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody (released December 11, 2008)

I’ve been going back and forth about whether it’s better to pursue criminal charges against government officials who were involved in the U.S. Torture Scandal.

On the one hand, you want to hold people accountable – especially when the results are so inhuman and heinous. On the other hand, the temptation toward political payback could undermine any legitimate pursuit for justice.

Then I remembered that the population roundups, concentration camps, and killing chambers were all perfectly legal in Germany in 1933-1945 and that one thing that came out of the trial of Secretary of Jewish Affairs Adolf Eichmann was that a psychiatrist examined him and found him perfectly sane (see A Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolf Eichmann by Thomas Merton).

In the end, I think U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder needs to appoint an independent prosecutor to pursue indictments against the following:

1. George W. Bush for requesting in writing legal determinations for evading the Geneva Conventions

2. Department of Defense Counsel William J. Haynes II for requesting in writing that abusive tactics “similar to those used by our enemies” should be considered for us against detainees in US custody.

3. Counsel to the President Alberto Gonzalez and Counsel to the Vice President David Addington for rendering legal interpetations to distort the meaning of existing anti-torture laws.

4. Major General Michael Dunlavey who authorized use of torture techniques at Guantanamo Bay.

5. Judge Advocate Colonel Diane Beaver for providing sub-par legal renderings to justify torture at Guantanamo.

6. Major General Geoffrey Miller, Dunlavey’s successor at Guantanamo, that ignored warnings from the DOD and FBI that the torture techniques he was endorsing were unlawful and counter-productive and who encouraged more aggressive interrogation techniques be used in Iraq.

7. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers and his legal counsel Jane Dalton for cutting short the legal and policy review process of interrogation procedures at Guantanamo.

8. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for the authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques at Guantanamo.

9. Department of Justice legal counsel John Yoo for rendering legal interpretations intentionally crafted to distort the meaning of existing anti-torture laws.

10. Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez for approving torture policies–including the use of dogs, stress positions, and environmental stimuli–at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

11. Department of Justice legal counsel Jay S. Bybee for providing sub-par legal rationale for using torture to extract information from al Qaeda operatives.

12. Acting Assistant Attorney General Steven Bradbury for providing sub-par legal rationale for using torture to extract information from al Qaeda operatives.

13. Number 13 is Vice President Richard Cheney.

When asked last December by Jonathan Karl on ABC news “Did you authorize the tactics that were used against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?”

Vice President Cheney answered: “I was aware of the program, certainly, and involved in helping get the process cleared, as the agency in effect came in and wanted to know what they could and couldn’t do. And they talked to me, as well as others, to explain what they wanted to do. And I supported it.”

E-mail Attorney General Holder at [email protected] or here.

Is Sheol in Preston Hollow, Texas?

Whilst reading in the prophet Isaiah, I popped down to the grocery store to buy orange juice for Sojourners’ Mardi Gras pancake breakfast tomorrow. With the prophet’s searing poetry still curdling inside me, my eyes fell on that this week’s edition of that fish-wrap, scandal rag The Globe trumpeting:

globecoverbushorig1Just weeks after leaving the White House, depressed and paranoid George Bush is suicidal, insiders fear. In a blockbuster world exclusive, sources tell GLOBE the ex-President is boozing up a storm – and reveal why he is terrified of Barack Obama and his own wife Laura. Don’t miss a single word!

It seems that life in the Bushes’ new home in Preston Hollow, a wealthy Dallas suburb, is not all he expected it would be. It struck me that the prophet Isaiah is much better at explicating the daily headlines than I am and in words much franker and bolder than I usually give myself permission to use. Isaiah 14:6-10 says:

You persecuted the people with unceasing blows of rage and held the nations in your angry grip. Your tyranny was unrestrained. But at last the land is at rest and is quiet. Finally it can sing again! Even the trees of the forest–the cypress trees and the cedars of Lebanon – sing out this joyous song: `Your power is broken! No one will come to cut us down now!’ In the place of the impotent there is excitement over your arrival. World leaders and mighty kings long dead are there to see you. With one voice they all cry out, `Now you are as weak as we are!

In fact, Isaiah describes Yahweh’s specific instructions to Israel to taunt the deposed leader of an empire, saying, “When the Lord has given you rest from your pain and turmoil and the hard service with which you were made to serve, you will take up this taunt against the king of Babylon”  (Isaiah 14:3-4).

Theologian Walter Brueggemann, in his explication of Isaiah 1-39, makes the argument for why this taunting is important, saying that when the people are free from their oppression then “one of the important opportunities, in such freedom, is to engage in a mocking song against the tyrant.”

Brueggemann goes on to describe the toppled ruler’s arrival in Sheol:

“Sheol” is not a place of punishment, but it is where the dead are kept in their impotence. As the deposed oppressor arrives in Sheol, now completely removed from authority and utterly impotent—a suitable resident for Sheol—all the others who used to be active authorities and great powers in the earth (now become impotent) present themselves as a welcoming committee for the new arrival in Sheol. They gather around the new arrival and recognize him as one of their own, formerly powerful, now completely powerless.

In high irony, the poet [Isaiah] has them welcome the new member of the powerless to their company—“You are like us”—powerless, no longer a force to be reckoned with. … The speech “rubs it in,” so that this now feeble has-been should be recognized for what he is, completely broken and irrelevant, warranting no attention at all. (Isaiah 1-39 by Walter Brueggemann, 1998, p. 127-128)

elliottsorig-crop1In light of Isaiah’s description, it seems entirely appropriate that Kyle Walters, president of Elliott’s hardware store in Dallas should offer George Bush a job as a store greeter, saying, “Like you, many of our greeters are retired from the corporate world, so we’re sure you’ll have no trouble making new friends.”

How many American retirees have had to do just this in order to make their Social Security checks stretch farther and cover their medical expenses?

And, the LA Times reports, that while the former first lady is working on a book, “the former president has yet to interest a publisher in his memoirs. In fact, several have advised him to wait a few years until his reputation is less, well, in need of a good hardware polishing.”

Of course, having compassion for George W. Bush, the man, the husband, the father, is part of the Christian calling, as is extending him the hand of mercy when he repents of his sins.

But for President Bush who sought the status of emperor and who claimed divine right in his exploits; who tortured strangers in secret prisons; who opened the nation’s treasuries to privateers; who unleashed the dogs of war on civilians for the purpose of working out old vengeances and hoarding resources, I have a few good taunts left in me.

In fact, I imagine that, right now, Sheol may have taken up an address in Preston Hollow, Texas.

Waxing the Waterboard?

There’s an important conversation happening now at the tail end of the Bush-Cheney administration about whether or not to prosecute President Bush and Vice President Cheney on criminal charges for illegal acts they committed during their administration.

Abu Ghraib series by Fernando Botero
Abu Ghraib series by Fernando Botero

Democratic Congressman Jerrold Nadler of New York has urged Attorney General Michael Mukasey to appoint an independent counsel to investigate Vice President Dick Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and other senior Bush administration officials for violations of the law relating to the torture of prisoners in US custody. Nadler is the chair of the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. Read his letter to the Attorney General here.

Over at JosephRoss.net, my compatriot Joe is raising similar questions. He writes:

George W. Bush is a president who approved torture, allowed the CIA to fly prisoners to other countries for torture, who repeatedly stated that the U.S. does not torture and then it was proven that we do. We just didn’t call it that. As long as it’s called “enhanced interrogation techniques” and “stress positions” it’s alright and legal. This is also a president whose vice-president, just last week, admitted that he approved of “waterboarding” which is against the law. Recall that the U.S. has actually prosecuted other countries for “waterboarding.” Now we’re suddenly not sure it’s torture?

We have  all been looking on as our president romantically remembers all the good times he had as president. He is photographed looking reflectively out windows, goes on talk shows describing what he will miss, gives interviews like an entertainer whose concert tour has come to an end. This politeness ought to be more than Americans will tolerate.

I’m certain the last thing the Obama Administration wants is to investigate a former U.S. president and perhaps find him or others in the Bush Administration guilty of breaking both U.S. law and international law. Yet, what is to stop a future U.S. president from doing equally immoral and illegal acts if we do not hold the present one accountable?

Read the whole post here.

There’s always an argument made to “let by-gones be by-gones” at the end of a presidency. The incoming administration doesn’t want the next one to turn around and investigate them! Understandable, but WRONG when it comes to preserving the Constitution and now allowing laws to be broken with impunity.

“This shocking admission by Vice President [Cheney that he was aware of the waterboarding program and “helped get the process cleared”] demands at a minimum a federal investigation and,” Congressman Nadler says, “if necessary, the pursuit of criminal charges. No one is above the law and, if the Vice President admits he broke the law, then he must be held responsible.”

In one of the first acts of the 111th Congress, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers proposed legislation to create a blue-ribbon panel of outside experts – National Commission on Presidential War Powers and Civil Liberties- to probe the “broad range” of policies pursued by the Bush administration “under claims of unreviewable war powers,” including torture of detainees and warrantless wiretaps.

Lest any of think that “warrantless wiretaps” only happen to “other people,” I suggest reading the story Spying on Pacifists, Environmentalists, and Nuns (LA Times, December 7, 2008) about the Maryland State Police sending undercover agents to infiltrate the Baltimore Pledge of Resistance and Marylanders Against the Death Penalty. It’s a prime example of how “them” is now “us.”

Al-Zaidi’s Shoe Protest and “Weapons of the Weak”

There is something of the biblical prophets in Iraqi journalist Mutadar al-Zaidi’s protest against President Bush at yesterday’s news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

Bush was in Baghdad to sign a “security agreement” with Prime Minister Maliki, which calls for U.S. troops to leave Iraq in 2011 – eight years, and thousands of lives, after the America’s 2003 unwarranted invasion.

Al-Zaidi, a cameraman for Cairo-based al-Baghdadiya TV, who had been kidnapped last year by Shia militants, apparently just snapped when President Bush said that the Iraq invasion had been “necessary for US security, Iraqi stability, and world peace” and that the “war is not over.” Al-Zaidi hurled his shoes – a devastating cultural insult – at President Bush’s head from a distance of about 12 feet, before he was thrown to the ground and hauled away. (Video.)

While most news reports have turned the incident into a joke and focused on President Bush’s quick evasive action and his quip about the shoes being size 10, it’s worth looking at what al-Zaidi actually said.

President Bush: “The war is not over.”

Mutadar al-Zaidi: “This is a farewell kiss, you dog!”

When the first shoe missed its target, al-Zaidi grabbed a second shoe and heaved it too, causing the president to duck a second time.

Mutadar al-Zaidi: “This is from the widows, the orphans, and those who were killed in Iraq!”

There is something of the biblical prophetic curse in al-Zaidi’s actions and words.

In Deuteronomy 27, Moses says: ‘Cursed be he who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’ (Deuteronomy 27:19)

Proverbs 26 is disgustingly clear about fools: “As a dog returneth to his vomit, [so] a fool returneth to his folly.” (Proverbs 26:11)

Lamentations 5 reflects the desperation of a conquered people: “Remember, O LORD, what is come upon us: consider, and behold our reproach. Our inheritance is turned to strangers, our houses to aliens. We are orphans and fatherless, our mothers [are] as widows. We have drunken our water for money; our wood is sold unto us. Our necks [are] under persecution: we labor, [and] have no rest.” (Lamentations 5:1-5)

Al-Zaidi is currently being “questioned” (God help him and us!) by security forces to determine whether he acted alone. The streets of Baghdad are filled with people in support of al-Zaidi’s prophetic protest.

This “shoe protest” against President Bush is an example to me of a particularly effective symbolic  protest against the oppressor by the oppressed. It’s an example of using “the weapons of the weak“, everyday acts of cultural and political resistance by those who would otherwise be viewed as powerless, against the the powerful.

Catholics and Obama

The Tablet, the leading Catholic newspaper in the U.K., ran an interesting bit of analysis by David Gibson on Obama’s election:

Obama’s election is another important step towards what the Founding Fathers – all white men, many of them slaveowners – called “a more perfect union”. As Obama said in his speech on election day, “This victory alone is not the change we seek; it is only the chance for us to make that change.”

And that is where the path once again grows steep. Now the prophetic rhetoric gives way to the cold reality of a country that cannot afford a New Deal or a Great Society. But the challenges facing America are, historians say, every bit as grave as those that faced Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Depression, and the desire for fundamental change – Obama’s campaign mantra – as strong as that which coursed through America in the 1960s.

Additionally, the Pew Forum on Religion and Politics report How the Faithful Voted (5 Nov. 2008) said this about the Catholic vote:

Catholics, too, moved noticeably in a Democratic direction in 2008; overall, Catholics supported Obama over McCain by a nine-point margin (54% vs. 45%). By contrast, four years ago, Catholics favored Republican incumbent George W. Bush over Kerry by a five-point margin (52% to 47%).

Though precise figures are not available, early exit poll data suggests that Obama performed particularly well among Latino Catholics. Overall, the national exit poll shows that two-thirds of Latinos voted for Obama over McCain, a 13-point Democratic gain over estimates from the 2004 national exit poll. Meanwhile, Obama’s four-point gain among white Catholics (compared with their vote for Kerry) is smaller than the gain seen among Catholics overall. In fact, as in 2004, white Catholics once again favored the Republican candidate, though by a much smaller margin (13-point Republican advantage in 2004 vs. five-point advantage in 2008).

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