During his 36-minute speech upon accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway Thursday, President Barack Obama explained to an audience of 1,000 how the United States has a "moral and strategic interest" in abiding by a code of conduct when waging war - even one that pits the US against a "vicious adversary that abides by no rules."
"That is what makes us different from those whom we fight," Obama said. "That is a source of our strength. That is why I prohibited torture. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed. And that is why I have reaffirmed America's commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions. We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard."
To many human rights advocates, however , Obama's high-minded declaration rang hollow in light of fresh reports that his administration continues to operate secret prisons in Afghanistan where detainees have allegedly been tortured and where the International Committee for the Red Cross has been denied access to the prisoners.
Obama has substituted words for action on issues surrounding torture since his first days in office nearly one year ago. Last June, on the 25th anniversary of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Obama said the US government "must stand against torture wherever it takes place" and that his administration "is committed to taking concrete actions against torture and to address the needs of its victims."
But it's clear that his pledge does not apply to torture committed by Bush administration officials.
That's the point the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) made shortly after Obama's acceptance speech. Officials from the civil rights organization issued a withering indictment of the Obama administration's handling of clear-cut cases of war crimes they say were committed by former Bush officials who the Obama administration not only refuses to prosecute but has gone to extraordinary lengths to cover up.
"We're increasingly disappointed and alarmed by the current administration's stance on accountability for torture," said Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU's National Security Project, during a conference call with reporters. "On every front, the [Obama] administration is actively obstructing accountability. This administration is shielding Bush administration officials from civil liability, criminal investigation and even public scrutiny for their role in authorizing torture."
Before leaving office, Dick Cheney said he approved waterboarding on at least three "high value" detainees and the "enhanced interrogation" of 33 other prisoners. President Bush made a somewhat vaguer acknowledgement of authorizing these techniques.
The ACLU and other civil rights groups said Bush and Cheney's comments amounted to an admission of war crimes.
Under the Convention Against Torture, the clear record that the Bush administration used waterboarding and other brutal techniques to extract information from detainees should have triggered the United States to conduct a full investigation and to prosecute the offenders. In the case of the US's refusal to do so, other nations would be obligated to act under the principle of universality.
But Jaffer said that while "the Bush administration constructed a legal framework for torture, now the Obama administration is constructing a legal framework for impunity."
Defending John Yoo
Indeed, last week, Obama's Justice Department asked a federal appeals court to dismiss a lawsuit filed against torture memo author John Yoo by Jose Padilla, a US citizen who was arrested in 2002 for allegedly planning to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" and detained in a Navy brig on US soil for three years as an enemy combatant, where he says he was tortured as a direct result of Yoo's legal authorization.
The Obama administration argued, in a friend-of-the-court brief filed with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, that DOJ lawyers who advise on torture or other human rights abuses are entitled to absolute immunity from lawsuits.