Tortured History

Detainee abuse continues to haunt the Obama White House. Until we learn exactly what happened during the Bush years, it will remain an issue that refuses to go away.

Karen J. Greenberg took a look at President Bush's detainee policy in the May/June 2009 issue of The National Interest. Please click here to view that essay. Below, she examines whether the Obama administration's approach to the issue has actually changed anything.


The shadow of torture as a part of the Bush administration's detention policy in the war on terror continues to hover over the Obama administration-most recently in a debate over photographs. It remains to be seen whether there will ever be any real change.

In this case, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act request for pictures of detainee abuse at the hands of the U.S. military. Initially, the president said he would comply with the request, but last month, he overturned his own decision, preferring to send the matter back to the courts for reconsideration. Presumably, the president reversed himself once he was briefed on the content of the photos.

An avalanche of conflicting opinions greeted the administration's decision. Many supporters of the president's approach are concerned at the danger it would bring to U.S. troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still others insist-above and beyond the threat to our soldiers posed by newly angered Muslim populations-releasing the photographs threatens Americans around the globe and serves as an inspiration to terrorism. It's one thing to hear about torture and another thing to see it with one's own eyes.

On the other side, some claim Obama is trying to hide evidence of criminality. They see the photo reversal as part of a reoccurring pattern in the president's behavior-notably in the administration's initial decision to claim state secrets in torture cases shortly after it took office. Detractors of Obama's position argue that the truth must come out in order for the United States to prevent a repeat of the torture flirtation that characterized the Bush-Cheney era. In recent days, the controversy has been heightened by press accounts of what was depicted in the unreleased pictures. Reports of the photos describe sodomy of young children and Muslim women, and other sexual crimes-many performed in front of other detainees.

Ironically, the photo controversy has brought us right back to the beginning of the entire torture episode. In spring 2004, when Seymour Hersh published his exposé of torture at Abu Ghraib, there were two documentary pieces essential to substantiating his story: the pictures of abuse at Abu Ghraib that appeared on CBS's 60 Minutes and an internal army investigation led by Major General Antonio Taguba. Taguba's report, named after its author, documented the detention activities at Abu Ghraib, examined the extent of abuse and attempted to analyze its causes. Now, ironically, we find ourselves in a similar situation. Once again, there are photos that tell a story the American public and wider world does not seem to know. And poignantly, the same general, Antonio Taguba, is out in front as the provider of details in a story that is unlikely to see the light of day.

Perhaps this recycling of events makes good poetic sense. The United States, contrary to what the president asserts, never fully addressed the crimes of Abu Ghraib-preferring to label detainee abuse as a case of a few "bad apples," instead of representing systematic mistreatment. And, as predicted, because so much remains in dispute and without an official narrative, the issue has refused to go away, like a ghost that won't vanish until it has found peace. What better sign could there be that until and unless the rampant abuses of the Bush years are investigated and brought into the light of day, they will continue to fester in the dark, always threatening to destabilize current events, waiting in the wings for justice to dispel their power?


Karen J. Greenberg is the executive director of the Center on Law and Security at the New York University School of Law and the author of The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo's First 100 Days (Oxford University Press, 2009).