April 27, 2009 in Opinion

Outisde Voices: Obama will find middle ground on torture nearly impossible

 

About this column

Outside Voices is a weekly roundup of excerpts from recent editorials published in newspapers around the nation. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board of The Spokesman-Review.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 21: If it weren’t so disturbing, it would be funny.

CIA interrogators had been handed Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi national believed to be a top strategist for al-Qaida. He’d been captured in Pakistan in March 2002 and flown to a secret CIA prison in Thailand. How best to get information out of him?

Someone heard that Zubaydah was afraid of insects, so they came up with the idea of putting him in a small box with a live insect.

Better check with Washington, someone says. Is a bug in a box torture?

So the e-mails fly and back comes the response from Jay Bybee, then the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. He was the Bush administration’s guy in charge of making sure interrogation techniques looked like they complied with the 1949 Geneva Conventions without actually, you know, complying with them.

A couple of hours in a box is fine, Bybee opines, because it won’t imminently threaten death. As to the bug, he says, the law says you can’t threaten him with imminent death, so make sure he knows it’s not a poisonous bug.

Slamming prisoners into a wall, same thing: Make sure it’s a flexible wall and there’s a restraint on the guy’s neck so he doesn’t get whiplash.

This kind of sharp legal mind deserved a lifetime appointment to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is what President George W. Bush gave him in 2003.

Last week, President Barack Obama, under pressure from a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, ordered four of the Justice Department’s pre-2005 interrogation opinions declassified. At the same time, Obama said CIA interrogators who relied on Justice Department opinions would not be prosecuted.

His decisions made neither the left nor the right completely happy. Human rights groups say that by absolving CIA interrogators, the United States violated international laws that require human rights abuses to be prosecuted.

From the right came former Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey and former CIA Director Michael Hayden. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, they argued that the effect of Obama’s decisions will be “to invite the kind of institutional timidity and fear of recrimination that weakened intelligence gathering in the past.”

If it was Obama’s hope to lay the torture issue to rest, he will be disappointed.

Detroit Free Press, April 22: An estimated 30 percent of urban residents are “unbanked,” meaning they don’t have accounts at federally insured financial institutions and are therefore vulnerable to check-cashing and predatory lending schemes they can’t afford.

The 28 million unbanked and 44 million underbanked in America lose $11 billion a year to neighborhood check-cashing outlets, pawn shops and payday lenders, which can charge interest rates of up to 30 percent.

Personal finances are not traditionally the purview of public officials. But in these tough times, government certainly has an interest in helping constituents protect their assets and create financially stable households.

That’s why the National League of Cities and the Cities for Financial Empowerment Coalition are working with many of their members to ensure consumers are financially literate and that banks offer deposit, payment, credit and electronic products that meet the needs of the unbanked. The league’s “Bank on Cities” campaign includes education and outreach efforts that partner with local banks.

Poor people already pay excessive rates for food, insurance and other staples. Government should help ensure that basic financial transactions don’t further erode their assets.


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