Obama's First Press Conference: Repeating Old Lies, Dodging Old Truths
Wednesday, 11 February 2009
by BAR managing editor Bruce Dixon
So how's that "change" thing working out? Are we getting better, or more of the same, and why? In his first press conference, Obama labeled the regime a destabilizing influence in the Middle East because it allegedly sought nuclear weapons, while ignoring the longstanding Israeli nuclear threat to all its neighbors. And the same day, Obama Justice Department lawyers appeared in court to invoke the same defense against investigation of their secret cross-border kidnapping and torture schemes as Bush --- that these widely known activities were "state secrets". Have we heard any of this before?
In the past few years, newspapers and broadcast media around the world have print and aired details of a lawless US government policy of kidnapping civilians and flying them abroad for indefinite detention and torture at the hands of client governments or its own military and civilian officials. Called “extraordinary rendition,” by the Bush Administration, which inherited it from its Democratic predecessor, this illegal practice has been the subject of a number of books reconstructing the flight plans and naming many of the so-called “black sites” which were the illegal jailings and tortures took place. Despite the wealth of publicly available detail on these criminal practices, the Bush administration claimed that to be answerable in court for this illegal conduct would compromise “state secrets,” and found federal judges to agree with this ridiculous claim.
On his first full day in office, President Obama renewed his pledge to close the “black sites” without of course naming them and giving himself a full year to do so, and declared that the US government would observe legal norms from this point onward. So when some of the victims of Bush-era cross-border kidnapping and torture appeared in court Monday, the reasonable expectation was that the new Justice Department would reverse itself and allow their lawsuits for damages to proceed. Instead lawyers for the Obama Justice Department rose to object to the case being heard in federal court on the same grounds that the Bush-Cheney regime had employed --- that revealing the criminal conduct of US military and civilian officials in court, even when this conduct is widely documented and well known, would jeopardize “state secrets”.
But after all the books and articles and news items, there are no remaining “state secrets” of any significance in the process of cross-border kidnapping and torture. Looking backward, all that's left are details like how many times it happened, who was kidnapped and tortured, how many buried still alive or dead, and where those bodies, animated and not, are now, and what dates which orders were given. But the president assures us he is not looking backward, So the unidentified maimed, dead and missing, their torturers and enablers and the names of all but the highest officials involved --- Bush, Cheney, Powell, Rice, Rumsfeld and their immediate deputies in and out of uniform, will appear on no court records, because Obama's Justice Department, just like the Bush Justice Department, insists that all the details of their well known crimes, down to the identities of the victims, are “state secrets”.
As legal and official falsehoods go, this one is naked and transparent. It provides past, present and future criminals on the civil service payroll the same cloak of immunity they enjoyed in the Bush-Cheney years. And it sets the tone, in many ways for the new administration.
Later that day, in a similar spirit of telling old lies and avoiding old truths, President Obama used his very first press conference to label Iran and its alleged quest for nuclear weapons to be the pre-eminent threat to peace and stability in the Middle East. Helen Thomas, the most senior reporter in the White House press corps, and the only one to stand up to Obama's predecessor asked point-blank whether any other countries in the Middle East possessed nuclear weapons. It is of course common knowledge that Israel has hundreds of nukes aimed at every capital in the region from Tripoli to Teheran. No less a member of Obama's cabinet than Robert Gates at his confirmation affirmed that Israel has nukes, but it suited the new president to refuse to answer the question, to ignore Thomas's follow-ups, and to filibuster for four or five minutes in some other direction.
Tens of millions who voted for this president imagined they'd get real change. But the reality is dawning on many that what we're getting is a lot more of the same. We have a president who repeats discredited lies about “rogue regimes” with nuclear weapons, while he ignores Israel, a genuine 21st century apartheid state, which has menaced its neighbors with nuclear weapons for more than thirty years.
Obama volunteered at some point during the press conference, that the moment the true import of his new job sank into him was when he had to sign letters notifying the families of American dead, “our heroes”, as he called them. The president made no mention of his decision, on this third day of office, to launch drones and cruise missiles into Pakistan. Those missiles killed 17 people, including several children. The drones were probably launched from Afghanistan, and remotely piloted by stateside military personnel. Those dead, including the children, got no letters of regret from the president, and seemed not to register in the president's public calculus. After all, they were not American heroes.
The election is over. Those unconditional Obama defenders who answer the president's critics with “well what did you want, McCain?” are doing what their president says he won't do. They are living in the past, looking backward instead of forward. It's time to hold the current president and his actions up to the cold light of day, to evaluate his performance in light of his promises and our legitimate expectations for peace and justice. It's time those of us who stand for peace and justice stop protecting the president. We may soon need to be protected from him.