US election: Obama and McCain shirk discussion of Guantánamo and executive overreach

9:39 am - September 29th 2008

by Andy Worthington    

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While pundits have been busy analyzing Friday’s Presidential debate, no one has been talking about a crucial issue that has disappeared from the election campaign since Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination in August, even though it is absolutely central to the complaints about the Bush administration’s behaviour over the last seven years.

The issue is unfettered executive power, and it has been manifested, to the horror of the world, and the dismay of Americans who pride themselves on being a nation founded on the rule of law, in the endorsement of torture as official US policy, the transformation of the CIA into an organization that has run a colossal “extraordinary rendition programme” and a network of secret prisons around the world, and the detention of thousands of prisoners without charge or trial in a legal black hole between the Geneva Conventions and the US court system.

In Guantánamo, Afghanistan and Iraq, over 20,000 prisoners in US custody are held neither as Prisoners of War, who would be protected from “humiliating and degrading treatment” and coercive interrogations by the Geneva Conventions, nor as criminal suspects who will be tried in a US court. The only trials put forward by the government — the Military Commissions at Guantánamo — are so tainted by accusations of pro-prosecution bias and the suppression of exculpatory evidence that the administration is fighting a losing battle to establish their legitimacy, nearly seven years after they were set up by Dick Cheney and David Addington.

In John McCain’s case, his refusal to discuss executive overreach is understandable. Republicans have been encouraged to endorse without question the bellicose rhetoric of the “War on Terror” and to turn a blind eye to the government’s shredding of the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Forget the rights of foreign prisoners; warrantless wiretapping and the President’s self-declared right to imprison anyone as an “enemy combatant” — even American citizens — have been sold as vital steps to protect America, rather than a naked power grab by a Vice President who believes, above all, in unfettered executive power.

Although McCain has stated that he wants to close Guantánamo, and has often declared his opposition to the use of torture by US forces, he has flip-flopped horribly as the election has approached. Back in February, he conveniently shelved his lifelong opposition to torture by voting against a bill banning the use of torture by the CIA, and after the Supreme Court ruled, in June, that the prisoners at Guantánamo have constitutional habeas corpus rights, he declared that it was “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.”

The disappointment, therefore, is in Barack Obama’s unwillingness to tackle the administration’s crimes head-on. His team has presumably discovered that neither the plight of prisoners held beyond the law nor the executive’s dictatorial power grab is of paramount importance to voters, but this is lamentable for two reasons: firstly, because Obama clearly both knows and cares about the law, and secondly because it is the Bush administration’s quest for unfettered executive power that has led to almost all the ills that currently plague the United States.

On respecting the law, Obama has a proven track record. He has worked with lawyers representing the Guantánamo prisoners, and has consistently voted against ill-conceived “War on Terror” legislation. Last August, in a speech in Washington D.C., he touched on all the issues that are currently lacking in his campaign:

In the dark halls of Abu Ghraib and the detention cells of Guantánamo, we have compromised our most precious values. What could have been a call to a generation has become an excuse for unchecked presidential power. A tragedy that united us was turned into a political wedge issue used to divide us.

And as recently as June, after the Supreme Court’s ruling, he declared that the ruling was “an important step toward reestablishing our credibility as a nation committed to the rule of law, and rejecting a false choice between fighting terrorism and respecting habeas corpus.”

This is not only fine oratory; it is also, I believe, essential to Obama’s campaign for change. In order to demonstrate quite how different he is from the Republicans who have brought the country to the brink of ruin, he should use his opposition to the Iraq war as a springboard for an assault on the executive’s power grab, in which all the horrors of the “War on Terror”, outlined above, would also be included. Instead of playing on the folly of an expensive war without end, he should be focusing on the war’s origins, and nailing it as the supreme gesture of a power-crazed executive, acting without restraint and with the arrogant assumption that it has destroyed both the “quaint” principles on which the United States was founded, and the separation of powers that was established to prevent tyranny.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press) and a regular commentator on US politics and the “War on Terror.” Visit his website at:

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About the author
This is a guest post. Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison. Blogging at
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Foreign affairs ,Terrorism ,United States

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Reader comments

Well they did discuss Guantanamo in the debate on Friday.

There’s a problem though – they both describe what’s going on there as torture and they both oppose it. So the discussion was short with both of them agreeing with each other.

Which bodes well for November on this issue.

Well they did discuss Guantanamo in the debate on Friday.


McCain mentioned the word once in a 2hr debate on foreign affairs. Obama never mentioned Gitmo, and only once mentioned torture when referring to McCain’s previous comments.

Thanks Andy, excellent article.

I think there are two very good points that you make.

One is Obama’s expedience on this issue – almost skirting it completely. I understand that it’s a vote-loser rather than a vote winner, but surely Guantánamo defines the overreach of the Cheney-era?

Second is McCain’s expedience in soiling his record by appealing to his party’s right during the Primaries. McCain is desperately trying to frame himself as a maverick – yet his record over the last year suggests he’s just another Bush.

Obama is pretty clear here about his views on executive powah.

Question 10. Is there any executive power the Bush administration has claimed or exercised that you think is unconstitutional? Anything you think is simply a bad idea?

Obama: “First and foremost, I agree with the Supreme Court’s several decisions rejecting the extreme arguments of the Bush Administration, most importantly in the Hamdi and Hamdan cases. I also reject the view, suggested in memoranda by the Department of Justice, that the President may do whatever he deems necessary to protect national security, and that he may torture people in defiance of congressional enactments. In my view, torture is unconstitutional, and certain enhanced interrogation techniques like “waterboarding” clearly constitute torture. And as noted, I reject the use of signing statements to make extreme and implausible claims of presidential authority.”

“The detention of American citizens, without access to counsel, fair procedure, or pursuant to judicial authorization, as enemy combatants is unconstitutional.”

“Warrantless surveillance of American citizens, in defiance of FISA, is unlawful and unconstitutional.”

“The violation of international treaties that have been ratified by the Senate, specifically the Geneva Conventions, was illegal (as the Supreme Court held) and a bad idea.”

“The creation of military commissions, without congressional authorization, was unlawful (as the Supreme Court held) and a bad idea.”

“I believe the Administration’s use of executive authority to over-classify information is a bad idea. We need to restore the balance between the necessarily secret and the necessity of openness in our democracy – which is why I have called for a National Declassification Center.”

No one is questioning Obama’s opinions. He is clearly against the abuses, but as an an election issue, he ignores it.

I wonder how many voters read The Boston Globe?


Thanks for the article. I take it the 20,000 prisoners you say are held in US custody excludes those that have been extraordinarily rendered to third parties. where even the numbers held or deceased appear to be an unknown unknown? Perhaps to the advantage of the current administration.

Terrible as Guantanamo has, in terms of an issue of vital importance to “average” American voters – and let’s not forget, both candidates are currently more desperate to grab those “undecided” folk (such as some of my relatives-by-marriage), than they are concerned about their core vote – rather been overwhelmed by recent events.

Ok, in a foreign policy debate, Obama could certainly have made more of it – but it’s generally not a pressing thing for the ‘floaters’. More like something they’d prefer was done better, at some point in the future – but only when it doesn’t look as if their mortgages/savings/pensions/credit cards/jobs are about to implode, thanks all the same.

Hi Douglas,
Thanks for the question. The 20,000 + figure is a rough estimate. It includes c. 21,000 in Iraq (see, at least 600 in Bagram, and the 263 currently in Guantanamo. The unknowns are those held elsewhere in Afghanistan, plus, of course, those who have been rendered to third countries or who may be held in as yet undisclosed secret prisons run by the CIA. Estimates of how many prisoners have been rendered vary: some say hundreds, others say thousands.

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