Obama's speech today was extremely disappointing. He spoke about a number of things and though it had some nice high-minded ideology in it, at almost every turn he undermined his supposed ideals with his plans. He supports rule of law, but plans to continue indefinite detainment without legal recourse. He favors transparency, but plans to continue keeping plenty of things in the dark. He loves accountability, but plans to fight any attempt to actually hold people accountable for breaking laws if he thinks it will get in the way of his agenda.
Most disappointing to me is his continued opposition to any kind of truth commission or investigation of torture. He characterized the push for investigation as partisan finger-pointing playing right into the hands of the Sean Hannity and friends:
I understand that it is no secret that there is a tendency in Washington to spend our time pointing fingers at one another. And our media culture feeds the impulses that lead to a good fight. Nothing will contribute more to that than an extended re-litigation of the last eight years. Already, we have seen how that kind of effort only leads those in Washington to different sides laying blame, and can distract us from focusing our time, our effort, and our politics on the challenges of the future.
Torture is not a partisan issue. Upholding the rule of law is not a partisan value. It is not finger-pointing to try someone for a crime that evidence and witnesses and documentation clearly indicates they committed. What does he mean by "re-litigate"? I know that the thrust of his rhetoric is all about us moving forward and not looking back and he wants to give us the idea that all of that stuff is in the past, but it is disingenuous. This stuff can't be "re-litigated" because it has never been "litigated". We still don't know the whole truth. We still haven't actually held anyone accountable for anything. We're not asking to redo anything we're asking Obama to do what he promised to do - uphold the law.
I understand that Obama doesn't want his presidency defined by this, but it's not his choice. He says he wants to avoid partisan politics but by refusing to set up an independent bi-partisan commission he is ensuring that this remains political. It doesn't matter if there are economic matters or military matters that Obama thinks should take precedence, this isn't a political decision it is a law-enforcement decision. Is there evidence that crimes were committed? Yes. Then we are obligated to investigate and take appropriate action under the law.
Terrorism is not unique, it is ancient. Every President ever has alleged that their own circumstances were unique and required a new set of rules (or rather the breaking of all the old ones). It is not absolutist to say that national security cannot be a justification for breaking the law. Thus, whether there is transparency or secrecy, there must be accountability under the law. Or rather, whether that is an absolutist statement or not, it is also right.
We see that, above all, in how the recent debate has been obscured by two opposite and absolutist ends. On one side of the spectrum, there are those who make little allowance for the unique challenges posed by terrorism, and who would almost never put national security over transparency. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who embrace a view that can be summarized in two words: "anything goes." Their arguments suggest that the ends of fighting terrorism can be used to justify any means, and that the President should have blanket authority to do whatever he wants – provided that it is a President with whom they agree.
Obama you are wrong, wrong, wrong. I think Glenn Greenwald put it well:
The speech was fairly representative of what Obama typically does: effectively defend some important ideals in a uniquely persuasive way and advocating some policies that promote those ideals (closing Guantanamo, banning torture tactics, limiting the state secrets privilege) while committing to many which plainly violate them (indefinite preventive detention schemes, military commissions, denial of habeas rights to Bagram abductees, concealing torture evidence, blocking judicial review on secrecy grounds). Like all political officials, Obama should be judged based on his actions and decisions, not his words and alleged intentions and motives. Those actions in the civil liberties realm, with some exceptions, have been profoundly at odds with his claimed principles, and this speech hasn't changed that. Only actions will.The ironic/maddening/terrifying/tragic thing is that Cheney gave a speech immediately after Obama's and while their rhetoric couldn't have been more opposite, their actual positions are difficult to distinguish. Obama may be more dangerous than Cheney ever was, because with Cheney you know he is a villain - he rides into town proudly wearing the black hat, but Obama looks and sounds convincingly like a good guy.