19 Feb 2009

New CIA chief, new torture policies?

Leon PanettaWASHINGTON DC, USA – In a couple of hours the new CIA director will be sworn in – the heavy-jowled Leon Panetta who used to be Bill Clinton’s chief of staff.

His appointment was meant to send the message loud and clear that the CIA and America had radically changed since Obama himself was sworn in. Obama had to work hard to find a candidate who was not in any way associated with the notorious abuses of the Bush administration – waterboarding, rendering suspects for torture abroad, and imprisoning suspects without trial at Guantanamo Bay.

And in Panetta he found someone who had publicly come out to say: “We cannot and we must not use torture under any circumstances. We are better than that,” while Bush was still in office.

So has everything changed since Obama signed the orders to close Guantanamo and to stop abusive interrogation practices? Maybe not as much as he would like you to believe.

Let’s take a closer look at what Panetta himself had to say when he was being questioned by Congress before his appointment was confirmed. He opened up a pretty huge loophole in interrogation techniques when he said that if the practices approved in the army manual were “not sufficient” to get a suspect to divulge important information then he would ask for “additional authority”.

 Leon Panetta

And he even admitted that the Obama administration will continue its policy of extraordinary rendition – under which terrorist suspects are taken to third countries without extradition proceedings.

They would not do so with the express purpose of having them tortured, he said. But he claimed the US would rely on diplomatic assurances of good treatment from the countries involved. A diplomatic fig leaf that has been roundly condemned by human rights groups here in America and in the UK where the British government does the same thing.

Another Obama appointee admitted in her congressional hearing the other day that anyone suspected of helping al-Qaida could be subject to detention without trial even if they were not captured in a battlefield zone. And the refusal of the Obama White House to release documents relating to the treatment of Guantanamo Bay detainee Binyam Mohamed has led many to worry they will also be as secretive about their detention and interrogation policies as Bush and Cheney were.

Obama disappointed many Democrats when he ruled out prosecutions of CIA agents who may broken the law during the last eight years. One senior senator wants a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate the sins of the past. But Obama has completely ignored that suggestion.

All Obama’s people agree that waterboarding is torture and swear that will not happen on their watch. And they are trying hard to find a way to close Guantanamo as well as all the CIA secret prisons abroad.

But delve deeper and some people may find that not all of Obama’s policies are that different from those that went before. Dick Cheney must be feeling just a little vindicated.

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