When a fiery young presidential candidate, Barack Obama, said he would not want his first term as president “consumed” by a witch-hunt into torture, observers took it as a sign he would carry out his promised truth exercise quickly – if elected.
“If I found out that there were high officials who knowingly, consciously broke existing laws, engaged in cover-ups of those crimes with knowledge forefront, I think a basic principle of our Constitution is nobody is above the law,” he added during the 2008 primary race that helped to set him apart from an equivocal Hillary Clinton on the issue.
Only the cynical could have guessed back then that it would take six years for even a limited official account of what happened to emerge, that it would be Obama’s own administration that stood in the way of its publication and that no one would end up taking personal responsibility for the crimes.
But, like the practice of “enhanced interrogation”, this dark addendum to the story of the United States war on terror has served to illustrate the compromises of power rather than shed meaningful light on its uses.
Though he moved quickly after the 2008 inauguration to ban the use of torture in future, it was to take a year for Obama even to begin to try to find out how and why it had happened in the recent past.
Attorney general Eric Holder announced an initial department of justice investigation in 2009, but he and Obama now claimed the exercise was a “time for reflection, not retribution” and made clear that interrogators would be granted immunity if they could be shown to have been following orders.
Another three years were to pass before, in 2012, the department confirmed that the last outstanding investigation of 101 detainees alleging abuse had closed and concluded that no charges should be brought.
“Our inquiry was limited to a determination of whether prosecutable offences were committed and was not intended to, and does not resolve broader questions regarding the propriety of the examined conduct,” said Holder.
The roles were to be reversed when another far less likely champion took up the fight for transparency and it was Obama’s own people who did most to get in the way.
Senator Dianne Feinstein’s role as chair of the Senate intelligence committee had until then been notable for its fierce defence of the intelligence community’s freedom to act as it saw fit. Her patience snapped when the CIA was caught interfering with committee staff, even hacking their computers during investigations into the agency’s role in torture.
CIA director John Brennan, one of the George Bush-era officials to remain in power throughout Obama’s administration, eventually admitted spying on the committee that was meant to oversee the CIA’s activities, issuing a half-hearted apology for the breathtaking breach of constitutional protocol.
But it was not just the many Bush officials who remained in power who tilted the Obama administration from confronting the issue head-on.
Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, reportedly dressed down former defence secretary Leon Panetta for agreeing to co-operate with the Senate inquiry.
“I was summoned to a meeting where I was told I would have to ‘explain’ this deal to Rahm … It did not take long to get ugly,” Panetta claimed in his memoir Worthy Fights. “‘The president wants to know who the f**k authorised this to the committees,’ Rahm said. “‘I have a president with his hair on fire and I want to know what the f**k you did to f**k this up so bad.'”
Even when the report was ready, Obama still used his top aides to frustrate its release, sending Emanuel’s successor to negotiate the extensive redactions demanded by the CIA – with Feinstein personally.
The White House argues it has sought to act as an honest broker with the intelligence community over the report and Obama has returned to more fiery condemnation of torture in recent weeks as publication has drawn near.
But unlike other failed campaign promises such as closing Guantánamo Bay, the administration cannot point to legal or congressional impediments to taking unilateral action to override the CIA.
At best, the pattern of obfuscation points to a practical wish not to weaken the effectiveness of the intelligence services during sensitive periods such as the hunt for Osama bin Laden or the fight against the Islamic State. At worst, it points to an administration seduced by the same arguments about the ends justifying the means that corrupted predecessors.
Either way, it’s a long way from the heady days of Obama’s campaign pledge that when he becomes president “we will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary”. – © Guardian News & Media 2014