07 April 2009

Obama, State Secrets, and Torture Memos: What If?

Yesterday I wrote that I hoped Obama would stand up to Senate Republicans seeking to delay confirmations in exchange for a commitment to bury Bush-era torture memos. In short, I wrote, exposing the America's dirty little secrets on this particular subject is a good thing to fight for. On further consideration, I actually think it's a great thing to fight for. Yes, the documents could be damaging, especially where American credibility is concerned. And yes, such documents could become effective recruitment materials for organizations that seek to do America harm. That said, is there anything in those memos that really shouldn't become public knowledge? The whole world knows that America sanctioned torture and inhumane treatment during the Bush administration. Abu Ghraib, anyone? And if we needed more, well, the Red Cross gave it to us yesterday.

For the Obama administration, this should be a freebie. Release the torture memos, confirm the worst, acknowledge that mistakes were made, and then promise that the new guard will honor commitments to human rights, the Geneva Convention, and moral rectitude.

But what if it's not that simple? For example: A) Very powerful elements may want to suppress the torture memos for what they reveal about the past president, vice president, and other high-level administrators. And B) Very powerful elements may want to suppress the torture memos for what they reveal about presidential powers, more generally.

What if Obama or the legal minds that protect the office of the president do not want to release the memos? That's certainly the case with Obama's continuation of Bush-era "state secrets" arguments surrounding warrantless wiretapping.

Now, Obama himself may not wish for such surveillance to continue against U.S. citizens on U.S. soil. Similarly, he may not want to keep torture memos concealed for the sake of being able to torture. But at the same time, might it be in the interest of the office of the president to suppress all that data for the simple matter of retaining maximum mobility? After all, any reductions in presidential powers would set precedents that could be applied in other, unforeseen situations. What legal or strategic adviser to the office will encourage the president to sacrifice these tools or to tie his hands in the future? And how much does Obama really want to argue about such things?