Sunday, February 22, 2009

Obama's First Failing Grade

I'd been hoping that I would not have the opportunity to use the below picture in a post. But the symbolism is sadly appropriate.

(Brennan Linsley / Associated Press)

Echoing perhaps the single most egregious legal position taken by the Bush Administration, the Obama justice department has now openly classified the detainees at the Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan as "unlawful enemy combatants." As previously discussed here, the purpose of this legal category is to keep secret the reasons for and reviews of their captivity and to deny any legal means to secure release.

Though the Obama administration's commitment to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay came as a surprising ray of hope for many of us who care about human rights, this new statement raises concerns that Guantanamo won't so much be closed as moved. As the New York Times article on the statement points out, the arguments of the two primary Supreme Court decisions on Guantanamo rest on the fact that the base is technically on United States soil. With that limitation removed, the overall mission of the prison can continue outside of SCOTUS's jurisdiction.

It isn't clear yet whether this indicates a full-fledged endorsement of the Bush legal framework or merely a temporary acceptance that will be addressed in time. But either way, it's worth remembering that Bagram has an arguably worse record than Abu Ghraib when it comes to prisoner abuses – there just weren't any publicly released pictures from Bagram.

Here's an Al Jazeera report, which both puts a human face on the situation and captures a US Officer's explicit statements on the legal status of the detainees and on the fact that Bagram contains prisoners from outside of Afghanistan:

Secrecy surrounding imprisonment is always worrisome, as public knowledge and legal recourse are the only means other than open revolt to keep abuse in check. Given how easy such abuse can be, how almost accidental or unintended, how impossible to investigate, an endorsement of institutionalized secrecy and questionable morality is playing with fire. For an administration that not only promised a change in detainee policy but would like to think of itself as pragmatic and rational, this is a scary step indeed.

Combine it with Hillary Clinton's remarks on China/Tibet relations, and you've got one truly awful week for human rights.


  1. Very dissapointing.

    Also upsetting because unlike on his econ issues (where people mostly just ignored his positions and advisers) he has been very consistent on this stuff and great at framing these issues during the presidential debates.

  2. Argh, just gotta repeat the "very dissapointing" bit.