Despite WikiLeaks, Obama Avoids Painful Reckoning With Own Record

Looks like the usual conveyor belts of hyperbole and useless information aren’t the only ones subordinating perhaps the single most significant set of on-the-ground details from the Iraq War to juicy inanities. In a typically hard-hitting piece yesterday on Salon, Glenn Greenwald blasted the New York Times, one of the chosen few news outlets provided advanced access to the latest 400,000 WikiLeaks documents from Iraq, for burying the lede (you know, the parts about rampant detainee abuse by US-trained Iraqi forces, including the “beatings, burnings and lashings [that] surfaced in hundreds of reports”) beneath an innuendo-laden “profile” of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that cites the controversial whistleblower/hacker/international man of mystery’s “erratic and imperious behavior” and “delusional grandeur.”

Greenwald’s analysis of the mainstream media’s ongoing efforts to obfuscate its own culpability for the ongoing Iraq fiasco is mostly correct, I think (you can judge for yourself), but the fixation with the soap opera of Assange’s personal life—his CNN interview Sunday ended prematurely when Assange left the set after it became clear the reporter wasn’t interested in the whole Iraq part of the story—seems to me most opportune for the one party in all of this most surely dreading an open discussion of human rights vis-à-vis the war on terror. That would be the Administration, and yes, I mean this one.

The Pentagon’s response to the latest WikiLeaks document dump was entirely predictable. It reads, in full:

“We deplore WikiLeaks for inducing individuals to break the law, leak classified documents and then cavalierly share that secret information with the world, including our enemies. We know terrorist organizations have been mining the leaked Afghan documents for information to use against us, and this Iraq leak is more than four times as large. By disclosing such sensitive information, WikiLeaks continues to put at risk the lives of our troops, their coalition partners and those Iraqis and Afghans working with us. The only responsible course of action for WikiLeaks at this point is to return the stolen material and expunge it from their Web sites as soon as possible.

“We strongly condemn the unauthorized disclosure of classified information and will not comment on these leaked documents other than to note that ‘significant activities’ reports are initial, raw observations by tactical units. They are essentially snapshots of events, both tragic and mundane, and do not tell the whole story. That said, the period covered by these reports has been well chronicled in news stories, books and films, and the release of these field reports does not bring new understanding to Iraq’s past.

“However, it does expose secret information that could make our troops even more vulnerable to attack in the future. Just as with the leaked Afghan documents, we know our enemies will mine this information, looking for insights into how we operate, cultivate sources and react in combat situations, even the capability of our equipment. This security breach could very well get our troops and those they are fighting with killed.”

Of course, the Administration has to condemn the leak of classified information, as it should. Yet from a president who a) is a constitutional scholar and b) campaigned on rectifying the Bush administration’s woeful human rights record would a, “The WikiLeaks documents raise serious allegations, and the United States is committed to doing whatever necessary to ensure that the American military and its partners conduct themselves in accordance with basic standards of human decency and international law,” be so out of order?

It would be helpful, because it’s not at all clear that this administration is committed to anything close to that. Human rights policy in the war on terror has been the single biggest betrayal of the Obama promise during the president’s first two years in office. Health care reform that doesn’t go far enough, a cap-and-trade deal dead on arrival, a Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy that just won’t die—I get it. It’s hard to get anything accomplished in Washington. Republicans have no interest in governing. Filibusters suck. Not that the president doesn’t bear plenty of the blame. Still, if I you threw me in a debate with my former Nation colleague Eric Alterman (author of a 17,000 word critique of Obama’s domestic policy record) and told me to defend Obama’s domestic policy record, I’d at least have something to say.

Not on detainee treatment. Because the president’s record there has been completely of his own making. He has maintained the unconscionable Bush-era practice known as extraordinary rendition of sending terror suspects abroad for interrogation to countries known for torturing prisoners. He has authorized a policy of extrajudicial assassinations against American citizens overseas, including an active hit pending against a New Mexico-born cleric in Yemen. Apparently, not even the Bush people dreamed you could actually execute an American citizen on mere suspicion of terrorist activity; they drew the line firmly at indefinite incarceration. And the president awarded the notorious private security contractor Blackwater—whose staggering disregard for human life you can read about here, here and, most poignantly, here—a new $120 million contract for services in Afghanistan this summer.

The president made these choices all by himself. For once, squeamish Blue Dog fecklessness and Jim Bunning as one-man nemesis of majority rule didn’t stand in his way. Lest we forget, this is the president who campaigned on ending these very policies that proliferated under the Bush administration and the pseudo-legal arguments that justified them. The Obama/Biden campaign website decried its predecessor’s use of the State Secrets privilege to preserve these policies. Yet there were Justice Department lawyers in the Ninth Circuit just a few months ago arguing that alleged victims of torture in foreign countries as a result of extraordinary rendition (which Obama also condemned during the campaign) could not sue the CIA, since such lawsuits might reveal, you guessed it, state secrets.

It’s true that the WikiLeaks documents date back to the Bush era and don’t implicate Obama officials. But if the media ever moved past its stalkerish obsession with Julian Assange, it might force a painful reckoning for this administration with its own abysmal and, it must be said, criminal, record on human rights and detainee treatment. President Obama is known to disdain the shallowness of the mainstream media these days. In this case, he owes it a very big thank you.

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