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Obama's biggest mistake is already haunting America

Barack Obama had a chance to show the world torture is not an American value. His failure teed it up for President Trump to bring it back.

I've only met Barack Obama once -- when he was campaigning in Pennsylvania for the 2008 Democratic nomination. He was so eager for this newspaper's endorsement that actually he came to our offices, then on North Broad Street, to make his pitch (Hillary Clinton had done the same a week earlier). In a crowded room, I had a chance to ask the future 44th president just one question -- and I asked him about torture.

Why torture? It was the last year of the Bush-Cheney administration, and new revelations were come out every day about waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation techniques," the lame euphemism for torture, which is illegal in America and the rest of the allegedly civilized world, as well as CIA "black sites," extraordinary rendition, and other dodgy practices. None of these activities made America safer, but they greatly harmed our nation's moral standing before the rest of the world.

Obama told me that his administration took torture seriously and would investigate the abuses by the Bush and Cheney team.


"What I would want to do is to have my Justice Department and my Attorney General immediately review the information that's already there and to find out are there inquiries that need to be pursued. I can't prejudge that because we don't have access to all the material right now. I think that you are right, if crimes have been committed, they should be investigated. You're also right that I would not want my first term consumed by what was perceived on the part of Republicans as a partisan witch hunt because I think we've got too many problems we've got to solve.

"So this is an area where I would want to exercise judgment -- I would want to find out directly from my Attorney General -- having pursued, having looked at what's out there right now -- are there possibilities of genuine crimes as opposed to really bad policies. And I think it's important-- one of the things we've got to figure out in our political culture generally is distinguishing between really dumb policies and policies that rise to the level of criminal activity. You know, I often get questions about impeachment at town hall meetings and I've said that is not something I think would be fruitful to pursue because I think that impeachment is something that should be reserved for exceptional circumstances. Now, if I found out that there were high officials who knowingly, consciously broke existing laws, engaged in coverups of those crimes with knowledge forefront, then I think a basic principle of our Constitution is nobody above the law -- and I think that's roughly how I would look at it."

Well, history shows how that played out. Once Obama became president, he -- and his attorney general, Eric Holder -- quickly decided that the whole "I would not want my first term consumed by what was perceived on the part of Republicans as a partisan witch hunt" thing trumped every other consideration. Including the rule of law. No one was ever prosecuted for their role in torture during the 2000s -- instead, one CIA official who tried to blow the whistle on torture was sent to prison. The clear message was this: America is a place where there is no accountability.

Which meant the stage was set for history to repeat -- and repeat quickly. With no signal that torture not only violated America's core values but was against the law, Donald Trump could run for president explicitly promising to bring it back. Since his election victory, Trump has kept his promise. He appointed -- and the Senate confirmed -- a new CIA director who said he was OK with bringing back waterboarding. The new president is poised to sign an executive order explicitly allowing the CIA to re-open its secret "black site" prisons. And today, Trump's CIA chief Mike Pompeo named one of the people who should have been prosecuted for her role in torture as the spy agency's No. 2:

In May, 2013, the Washington Post's Greg Miller reported that the head of the CIA's clandestine service was being shifted out of that position as a result of "a management shake-up" by then-Director John Brennan. As Miller documented, this official – whom the paper did not name because she was a covert agent at the time – was centrally involved in the worst abuses of the CIA's Bush-era torture regime.

As Miller put it, she was "directly involved in its controversial interrogation program" and had an "extensive role" in torturing detainees. Even more troubling, she "had run a secret prison in Thailand" – part of the CIA's network of "black sites" – "where two detainees were subjected to waterboarding and other harsh techniques." The Senate Intelligence Committee's report on torture also detailed the central role she played in the particularly gruesome torture of detainee Abu Zubaydah.

Beyond all that, she played a vital role in the destruction of interrogation videotapes that showed the torture of detainees both at the black site she ran and other secret agency locations. The concealment of those interrogation tapes, which violated both multiple court orders as well the demands of the 9/11 Commission and the advice of White House lawyers, was condemned as "obstruction" by Commission Chairs Lee Hamilton and Thomas Keane. A special prosecutor and Grand Jury investigated those actions but ultimately chose not to prosecute.

That CIA official's name whose torture activities the Post described is Gina Haspel. Today, as BuzzFeed's Jason Leopold noted, the CIA announced that Haspel was selected by Trump's CIA Director Mike Pompeo to be Deputy Director of the CIA.

Didn't someone say once that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it? To be clear, Trump and Pompeo's behavior here is outrageous. Not only is torture a lingering moral stain on the national soul, but the practice serves no practical purpose -- wiser heads, including Trump's own defense secretary James Mattis, know that it's counter-productive -- other than as a feel-good catharsis to the president's xenophobic base.

But the Obama administration's massive failure to hold anyone accountable for that era of abuse set the stage for this fiasco. To someone with a mostly favorable view of his presidency, this mistake was the biggest one that Obama made. And it makes one wonder if America will ever have the moral intestinal fortitude to break this cycle of insanity.