NEW YORK—You can't blame Dick Cheney for being annoyed at President Barack Obama. Obama is closing Guantanamo. He's ordering the CIA to interrogate prisoners according to the rules written in the Army Field Manual, which doesn't allow torture. He's even phasing out such classic Bushian phrases as "enemy combatant" and "war on terror."
But the dark prince of neoconservatism should relax. Obama's inaugural address may have promised to "reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals," but—in all the ways that matter—he's keeping all of Bush's outrageous policies in place. Sure, he talks a good game about "moving forward." But nothing has really changed. From reading your e-mails to asserting the right to assassinate American citizens to bailing out companies whose executives pay themselves big bonuses, Obama's changes are nothing but toothless rhetoric.
Closing Gitmo, reported The New York Times, was merely "a move that seemed intended to symbolically separate the new administration from Bush detention policies. But in a much anticipated court filing, the Justice Department argued that the president has the authority to detain terrorism suspects there without criminal charges, much as the Bush administration had asserted. It provided a broad definition of those who can be held, which was not significantly different from the one used by the Bush administration."
What will happen to the 241 POWs still at Gitmo? They won't be called "enemy combatants" anymore but most won't be going home. "The filing signaled that, as long as Guantanamo remains open, the new administration will aggressively defend its ability to hold some detainees there," wrote the Times. Where will they go after that?
Welcome to Gitmo II—courtesy of Barack Obama.
Countless victims have been tortured by U.S. military personnel at Bagram, the U.S. airbase in Afghanistan where Bush imprisoned 600 people without charges. Some were murdered in the camp's notorious "salt pit." "Even children have not been spared," says Amnesty International.
Now Bagram is being expanded—nearly doubled in size—in order to accommodate 200-plus detainees from Gitmo, as well as future POWs from Obama's expanded war against Afghanistan. As bad as Guantanamo was, conditions at Bagram are worse.
Unless you believe indefinite detention without due process to be torture, Obama says his detainees won't be tortured. Mostly. Probably. Maybe. The Washington Post quotes an administration insider as saying that the CIA will enjoy "more leeway" than the Army Field Manual allows, in order to "take into account the differences between battlefield interrogations and those aimed at eliciting intelligence about terrorist groups and their plans."
Extraordinary renditions, the Times reports in a different article, will continue under Obama. "In little-noticed confirmation testimony recently," says the paper, "Obama nominees endorsed continuing the CIA's program of transferring prisoners to other countries without legal rights, and indefinitely detaining terrorism suspects without trials even if they were arrested far from a war zone."
During the 2008 campaign Obama's critics accused him of saying nothing, albeit beautifully. Now that we've gotten to know him a bit, it's time to refine that assessment: He's just a weasel. An eloquent weasel. But a weasel who says the right things while doing the opposite.
On March 9 Obama ordered federal agencies to suspend Bush's infamous "signing statements," sneaky documents issued after the signing of a bill that ordered government agencies not to enforce the very same bill he'd just approved in front of the cameras. Signing statements, says the American Bar Association, use one-man dictatorial rule to negate the people's will as expressed by Congress and are thus "contrary to the rule of law and our constitutional separation of powers."
"Yet two days later—literally—Obama signed a $410 billion spending bill and appended to it a signing statement claiming that he had the Constitutional authority to ignore several of its oversight provisions," writes Glenn Greenwald of Slate.com.
Greenwald regrets having to quote the vile Rich Lowry of the right-wing National Review magazine. So do I. But even the right is right sometimes:
"Barack Obama has perfected a three-step maneuver that could never even be attempted by a politician lacking his rhetorical skill or cool cynicism. First: Denounce your presidential predecessor for a given policy, energizing your party's base and capitalizing on his abiding unpopularity. Second: Pretend to have reversed that policy upon taking office with a symbolic act or high-profile statement. Third: Adopt a version of that same policy, knowing that it's the only way to govern responsibly or believing that doing otherwise is too difficult."
This week's example is Obama's grandstanding over $165 million in bonuses paid to executives of American International Group, which received billions in federal bailout money. He feigned outrage: "How do they justify this outrage to the taxpayers who are keeping the company afloat?" But his Treasury Department knew about the bonuses—which amount to roughly 55 cents per American—ages ago. He also knows there isn't much the government can do legally to claw the money back.
Unlike the word count limit of this column, Obama's perfidy knows no limits. He's already become more dangerous to democracy and basic human rights than George W. Bush. Unlike Bush, he has no political opposition. Cheney may nitpick, but most Republicans are happy to see Bush's policies remain in place. Meanwhile, liberals remain loyal, silent and tacitly pro-torture.
Ted Rall, president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, is author of To Afghanistan and Back, the first book published about the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.