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Obama must right the wrongs
American power is rooted in American values, Secretary of State-designate Hillary Rodham Clinton said last week at her Senate confirmation hearing. Unfortunately, we've learned the hard way that the United States cannot credibly promote values it is violating. For many of our allies, as well as our enemies, the hooded prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the offshore detention center at Guantanamo Bay and the waterboarding of suspected terrorists by the CIA came to define American power in the last eight years, proving yet again that what we do matters more than what we say.
President-elect Barack Obama has signaled that he will take swift action to break with the shameful practices that marked the Bush administration's response to the 9/11 attacks. He is likely to prohibit waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation techniques" approved in March 2002 for use by the CIA; to end the "extraordinary rendition" of prisoners from U.S. custody abroad to countries known to use torture; and to order the closure of Guantanamo. These are essential steps to restore the U.S. commitment to human rights and the rule of law, but they are just the first steps.
Under President Bush, the United States acted unilaterally to exempt itself from international laws and treaties governing not only torture but arms control, climate change, even consular affairs. Bush insisted that the Geneva Convention that has long protected prisoners of war didn't apply to war-on-terror prisoners at Guantanamo. The administration pulled out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia so it could build a missile defense system in Europe. Having signed the U.N. convention on climate change, the United States rejected the attached Kyoto protocol to limit greenhouse gas emissions because it would hurt the U.S. economy -- then did almost nothing to address global warming. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pulled the United States out of a protocol of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations after a Mexican national used it to fight a death row sentence in Texas, arguing in the International Court of Justice that he had been denied his right to see a diplomat from his home country.
Some of the Bush administration's decisions will be easier to roll back than others, and Obama may not want to return to the way things were in every case, but a key to reestablishing the country's international standing will be to engage with our allies on these and other issues. Obama should reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the Geneva Convention, as well as to the International Court of Justice, known as the World Court, which the United States successfully used to sue Iran over the 1979 hostage-taking. He should reconsider signing the statute that created the International Criminal Court in 2002 to prosecute genocide and war crimes cases, and disavow cynical U.S. exemptions to its authority.
Righting wrongs committed in the so-called war on terror, however, will be more complicated. It's one thing for Obama to announce that he'll close Guantanamo, and another to figure out what to do with the more than 200 prisoners there, all but a handful of whom are still being held without charges. The government must review every case to see which can be prosecuted in federal court and which cannot because they are based on evidence obtained by coercion.
Last week, the Bush administration official in charge of convening military commissions at Guantanamo told that a Saudi national, Mohammed al-Qahtani, had been tortured in U.S. custody and, therefore, could not be prosecuted, even though she believed him to be "a dangerous man." Such cases, involving embittered prisoners and some who pose a national security risk, will sorely test the new administration.
In his recent farewell to foreign ambassadors and U.S. diplomats, Bush said his administration had worked hard to promote "the transformative power of freedom and liberty." But torture and broken laws worked just as hard to undermine those ideals. Around the world and at home, the pressure will grow on the United States to reveal the full extent of the abuses committed in the name of protecting American freedom. We have no need for special truth commissions in the manner of South Africa's -- our institutions of justice are more than up to the task. Nor do we need witch-hunts or show trials. That said, federal investigations and congressional inquiries are likely and may turn up evidence of criminal wrongdoing. If so, the Department of Justice should not hesitate to pursue such allegations. This page was greatly relieved to hear Atty. Gen.-designate Eric H. Holder Jr. say unequivocally at his confirmation hearing that "waterboarding is torture" and "no one is above the law."
The Bush years are not the only period in which the United States has subordinated the rule of law to war. President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus when it inhibited his power during the Civil War, and 110,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans were rounded up and sent to internment camps during World War II. We know from these experiences that reclaiming the law is more difficult than abrogating it, and it will be tempting for President Obama to defer the task. Freeing suspected terrorists poses political risks and legal complications; submitting to international standards will inflame some conservatives. Yet Obama must not falter or delay, for breaking the law damages not only the victims of abuse but the country itself. The pursuit of truth and justice are deeply held American values, to be promoted in word and deed.
For the complete "Leadership and Legitimacy" series, go to latimes.com/obama-leadership.