During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama criticized the Bush administration for its excessive secrecy, noting that it had "invoked a legal tool known as the 'state secrets' privilege more than any other previous administration to get cases thrown out of civil court." Obama also promised to end "extraordinary rendition," a practice through which "we outsource our torture to other countries."
But last week the Obama administration used the state secrets privilege to block a lawsuit by five former captives who say they were tortured as a result of extraordinary rendition. Although candidate Obama surely would have been outraged, President Obama is for some reason less concerned about abuses of executive power.
"To build a better, freer world," Obama the candidate wrote in a 2007 Foreign Affairs essay, "we must first behave in ways that reflect the decency and aspirations of the American people. This means ending the (practice) of shipping away prisoners in the dead of night to be tortured in far-off countries."
It turned out Obama meant that he, like his predecessor, would seek assurances that detainees transferred to other countries would not be mistreated. After all, why would governments that routinely torture their prisoners lie about it?
Obama's broken promise sheds light on his determination to suppress a lawsuit by five men who sued the Boeing subsidiary Jeppesen DataPlan over its role in helping the CIA arrange prisoner flights during the Bush administration. The lead plaintiff, Binyam Mohamed, is an Ethiopian citizen and legal British resident who was arrested in Pakistan on immigration charges in 2002. He says he was turned over to the CIA, which flew him to Morocco, where he was held for 18 months and subjected to "severe physical and psychological torture."
Mohamed, who was later imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay without trial for five years before being released, says Moroccan security agents beat him, broke his bones and cut him with a scalpel all over his body, including his genitals, after which they would pour a "hot, stinging liquid" into the wounds. His four co-plaintiffs tell similar stories of abuse at the hands of Moroccan, Egyptian, Jordanian and American officials.
Even if every word these men say is true, the Obama administration argues, they cannot be allowed to pursue their claims because doing so might endanger national security. Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit narrowly accepted this maximalist position, dismissing the lawsuit rather than letting it proceed based on publicly available evidence.