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Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch and an expert in United States foreign policy, is responsible for the organization's overall advocacy efforts with the US government. He[…]

Does the Obama administration represent a meaningful change from the policies of George W. Bush when it comes to torture, unlawful detention, and responsible warfare? Human Rights Watch Director Tom Malinowski is optimistic, but has several caveats.

Question: Why did Obama renege on his promise of transparency on torture?

Tom Malinowski: Well we had transparency on some things and none on others. I think, very importantly, on the positive side, the administration released a number of Justice Department memos that laid out in awful, vivid excruciating detail the kinds of torture techniques that the Bush justice department thought were within the law. How many times you could water board someone? How many hours and days you could keep somebody awake before it constituted in their minds, “Torture”, and I think, substantially, those were the most important things to reveal.

The pictures were a very difficult decision. You have a new President but an old national security establishment in which a lot of folks make very powerful and very scary arguments to the President of the United States about the damage that may be done by releasing something, those photos in that case. And you know the President is in charge in some ways, but he has to take into account the views of this giant ship of state that he is trying to manage and steer forward and so he made a decision in that case not to release those photo,s which I thought was not the right decision. But again, I think it’s too early to say that they are absolutely committed to transparency and it’s too early to say that they’ve broken their promise. They’ve made some interesting decisions on both sides of the line.

Question: Does classifying the photos legitimately save us from embarrassment?

Tom Malinowski: Well, I don’t think that anything should be classified solely to protect the government or even the country from embarrassment. In other words, if something was done that was wrong, that most people around the world would consider wrong, it shouldn’t be classified simply to avoid getting people angry at us. That’s under the law, it’s not just my opinion—I think under the law that’s not a sufficient reason to classify something.

Now, President Obama, if he were here, would probably argue that it’s more than just anger; what he feared was the kind of anger that leads to violence against the American troops in places that are already tremendously dangerous for them, including Iraq and Afghanistan. And I respect that judgment: it was the view of many people in the military. I don’t think that it was correct, though. I don’t think there’s anything that in those photos that people haven’t seen in the photos that were originally released after the Abu-Ghraib scandal. I think the reaction among those people in Iraq would have been, “Well we’ve seen that already and what matters is what is the United States doing about this.” And so in a way that most important question in their minds is what ought to be the most important question in our minds. What are we doing about these abuses that happened in the past? Is there going to be a sense of closure? Is there going to be any accountability? Going forward, can we be certain that these things will never happen again? Those are the right questions substantively—they’re also the main questions that need to be answered to win back the good will of people around the world.

Question: What are the chances that innocent people are in Guantanamo?

Tom Malinowski: I think that there’s a certainty that a lot of the people who were originally brought there were innocent of committing any crimes against the United States. They weren’t terrorists, they were folks who were in the wrong place [at] the wrong time—picked up by bounty hunters sold to US Forces.

Interestingly, if you go back to 2001-2002, when the Taliban and all these foreigners who had gone to Afghanistan were fleeing the country and then being picked up, some [were] sent to Guantanamo. In some ways, the more dangerous, the more awful you were, the greater your likelihood of not being captured and sent to Guantanamo. And the less important dangerous you were, the greater the likelihood of being sent to Guantanamo. The reason for that is that the really big bad guys had money to buy their way out of the bounty hunter’s grasps, and they had the connections, particularly with the Pakistani Military and Intelligence Services, to give them protection out of the country. Whereas the poor shmoes, most who have none of that, had no way to escape being caught and ultimately being sent on.

Now, that’s the original population of about 800 people. We’re now down to about 240 and one would hope that represents more of the hardcore than the farmers and the innocent bystanders who were picked up at the beginning. But I think there are still a lot of people down there who, although they may have views and opinions about us that would trouble most Americans, a lot of them are not necessarily people who have taken an action, committed a crime, a violence of terrorism. They are people who are guilty more by association. They spent a few nights at a guesthouse that was used by Al Qaeda or the Taliban. They hung out with the wrong people, and they have opinions and ideology that makes them appear dangerous to their interrogators. But they haven’t necessarily done anything yet.

Question: Are there human rights abuses today on American soil?

Tom Malinowski: Well, Human Rights Watch has, for many years, worked on issues inside the United States—we are far from perfect. Whether it’s abuses in our prison system—we did a major report a few yeas ago on rape in American prisons and the sometime indifference or even complicity of authorities in that awful problem—abuses in the immigration detention system, and this is of course not to mention the special and hopefully anomalous things that happened in the last eight years as part of the fight against terrorism—Guantanamo and torture and the like which hopefully we are putting behind us. So no country is perfect. The United States certainly has been far from perfect. And the more we’re seen as confronting those problems, acknowledging them, and correcting them, the more powerful a force the United States can be in talking to the rest of the world about human rights.

Question: Is Obama’s approach to Afghanistan a substantive change from Bush’s?

Tom Malinowski: I think that’s the big change from the Bush’s era. In the Bush’s era you have rhetoric of nation building in Afghanistan without the substance. There was not enough troops to provide basic security for the Afghan people. There was not enough money to pay for real economic development. There was not enough diplomatic attention to get Afghanistan the support it needed, but also the pressure it needed for its own government to behave better towards its own people. Now you have the substance of nation building and less of the rhetoric. You have a lot more resources appropriately being dedicated to Afghanistan with maybe slightly less ambitious rhetoric about liberty and freedom and democracy, which is fine with me because I’m more concerned about the substance than the rhetoric.

I think that the troops are important, because at the end of the day nothing is going to work in Afghanistan if regular people don’t feel secure, but the troops alone are not enough even to provide that sense of security because for most Afghans, not all but most Afghans, the main source of insecurity over the last several years has not been the Taliban. As rapacious and brutal as they are, it’s been their own governments, their own institutions, corrupt local officials, and warlords and police who either failed to protect them or actively abused them. That’s not something that American troops, through the use of military force, can stop. That is a political challenge. It’s going to require using all the levers of influence that United States has to persuade and assist the Afghan government in building institutions that serve their people. And I think the administration gets that intellectually it’s going to be a while before we know if they can pull it off practically.

Recorded on:  July 29, 2009