Obama Seizes Moment to Remind Voters He's Against Torture

Several of his potential Republican opponents want to bring back waterboarding. He should do more to prevent that from ever happening.

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President Obama reaffirmed Monday that waterboarding is in fact torture, reminding civil libertarians that, for all the failures of his administration, he is to be commended for signing the depressingly necessary Executive Order Ensuring Lawful Interrogations. Among other things, it ended the shameful Bush Administration policy of exploiting the universal human fear of drowning to terrorize detainees in much the same way that the villains in 1984 terrified its protagonist with a rat.

Like many Republicans, Gov. Rick Perry, Rep. Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain favor bringing back waterboarding, as they unashamedly noted in Saturday's GOP debate.

"Waterboarding is torture," Obama retorted. "It's contrary to America's traditions. It's contrary to our ideals. That's not who we are. That's not how we operate. We don't need it in order to prosecute the war on terrorism. And we did the right thing by ending that practice. If we want to lead around the world, part of our leadership is setting a good example. And anybody who has actually read about and understands the practice of waterboarding would say that that is torture."


Alas, Obama is wrong about one thing: a lot of Republicans who've read about waterboarding do not in fact say it is torture, preferring the Orwellian euphemism "enhanced interrogation technique." Should a Republican win the presidency, there is a very real chance that America will torture again. Though Obama's position on this issue is better than that of his predecessor and most of his opponents, the fact that torture could return suggests the shortcomings of his approach.

My college Andrew Cohen argues here that Obama should've had a torture commission.

Michael W. Macleod-Ball, the chief of staff in the ACLU's Washington, D.C., office, told me several months ago that it would've been better for Obama and the Democratic Congress he once enjoyed to pass a legislative ban against waterboarding, rather than doing away with it via an easily reversed executive order.

Finally, by affirming that waterboarding is torture, but failing to prosecute those who perpetrated it during the Bush Administration, Obama is violating America's legal obligations under the Convention Against Torture, which was signed by Ronald Reagan in 1988 and ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1994.

As Glenn Greenwald puts it:

When there are credible allegations that government officials have participated or been complicit in torture, that Convention really does compel all signatories -- in language as clear as can be devised -- to "submit the case to its competent authorities for the purpose of prosecution." And the treaty explicitly bars the standard excuses that America's political class is currently offering for refusing to investigate and prosecute:  "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture" and "an order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture."
There are considerable political obstacles to a Congressional ban on waterboarding or the prosecution of Bush-era officials for torture. Pursuing them is nevertheless the right thing to do.

Whatever happens between now and election day, Obama deserves credit for being better on this issue than all of his possible Republican opponents save Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul and Gary Johnson (Mitt Romney hasn't said he'd bring back waterboarding, but hasn't labeled it torture or promised not to re-institute it either). Given the bad economy and the real possibility he'll be defeated in 2012, Obama should do all he can in the time guaranteed to him to ensure that his superior policy stays in place, erecting as many barriers as possible to future torture by the United States.

Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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