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      MoveOn: Break the Silence on Torture and War

      This article originally appeared at The Nation on June 10, 2009.

      Progressives who have been silent on the escalating wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan have a new opportunity to change their stance now that the nearly $100 billion Congressional war supplemental (HR 2346 [1]) authorizes suppression of hundreds of torture photographs held by the Pentagon.

      The amendment, by Senators Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham, is designed to bar the release of photos revealing torture [1] at military prisons during the Bush administration, by exempting them from the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act.

      Democrats are in disarray over the issue. According to Congressional reports, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at first approved the Lieberman-Graham amendment, then backtracked after hearing complaints from Representatives Barney Frank, Louise Slaughter and others from the Democrats' liberal wing. In the meantime, Hillary Clinton was dutifully making phone calls to pick off votes from the fifty-one Democrats' who opposed the House version in May.

      Groups like, with millions of members and campaign dollars, become crucial during close Congressional votes, either by their presence or by their absence.

      When I recently posted an article questioning MoveOn's silence [2] towards the escalating wars, the response of MoveOn's leadership was to question its accuracy and demand corrections from anyone publishing the piece.

      I never meant to suggest that MoveOn's executive director explicitly or verbally promised President Obama at a White House meeting that MoveOn would keep silent about the war escalations. What I did write is that MoveOn told Obama they were supporting his domestic agenda, which, in Beltway culture, was a clear message that this former antiwar group would not be opposing the president's military escalation, nor his Predator strikes, nor the civilian casualties, not even his backtracking on torture promises. At that point, MoveOn had not even polled its membership on Afghanistan, Pakistan or torture.

      Move.On's continuing silence only speaks for itself. While their internal discussion of Afghanistan and Pakistan unfolds, they at least could express strong opposition to the administration's non-compliance with the Freedom of Information Act, as well as support for Rep. Jim McGovern's amendment calling for an exit strategy [3] by December.

      But now with the amendment pending to suppress the torture photos, the moral pressure to break the silence is increasing. The administration added to its policies of secrecy yesterday by urging a federal court to suppress documents [4] detailing the CIA's videotaped interrogations at secret prisons.

      The Obama argument for suppressing the torture photos is specious. The administration claims that their release will inflame greater insurgent hatred against American troops. But the Abu Ghraib torture photos [5] already have served that inflammatory purpose and the current cover-up will undermine confidence that America's secret policies are changing.

      This is an administration that once pledged no more supplementals--the spending bills that avoid the scrutiny of hearings. Having reneged on that procedural promise, they now are loading the war appropriation measure with the FOIA exemption amendment, not to mention funds for swine flu and the International Monetary Fund. These administration approaches undermine the deliberative process and weaken the role of the legislative branch.

      The real effect of Obama's censorship decision is to dampen any resurgence of antiwar sentiment and public support for an investigation of past crimes. Silence in the face of censorship means collaborating in the cover-up of torture. The political effect is to leave antiwar Democrats under greater pressure to yield than to stand their ground.


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