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Between the Lines

June 10, 2004

The torture onion

As we peel away the layers of the torture scandal in Iraq and Afghanistan we find that we're looking more and more like the Gestapo of the 21st Century. It makes the eyes sting.

Kevin Drum at Political Animal put it this way:

" … put aside the technical analysis and ask yourself: Why has torture been such a hot topic since 9/11? The United States has fought many wars over the past half century, and in each of them our causes were just as important as today's, information from prisoners would have been just as helpful, and we were every bit as determined to win as we are now. But we still didn't authorize torture of prisoners. FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, LBJ, Reagan — all of them knew it wasn't right, and the rest of us knew it as well.

"So what's different this time? Only one thing: the name of the man in the White House. Under this administration, we seem to have lost the simple level of moral clarity that allowed our predecessors to tell right from wrong. It's time to reclaim it."

The administration has made the case that terrorists like those who rammed planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon aren't covered by the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war. That may be legally correct. But it is simply appalling that we're stooping to legal technicalities of this kind to justify practices that we know are fundamentally wrong. Furthermore, even though al-Qaida suspects may slip through some legal loophole in the Geneva Conventions, the U.S. executive branch is still governed by U.S. law and by international treaties we have ratified. The Constitution says so in clear, plain language that legalistas like White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and the lawyers who drew up the torture memo that became public this week should be able to understand. In fact, one disgusting aspect of all this is that they do understand it—then construct elaborate legal mazes to try to circumvent these simple realities.

Law professor Michael Froomkin has a lengthy, but rewarding, analysis of the legal jujitsu in the memo, which in order to skirt the inconveniences of law and treaties grants the president powers that are nowhere mentioned in the governing documents of this country.

"On pages 22-23 the Walker Working Group Report sets out a view of an unlimited Presidential power to do anything he wants with 'enemy combatants'. The bill of rights is nowhere mentioned. There is no principle suggested which limits this purported authority to non-citizens, or to the battlefield. Under this reasoning, it would be perfectly proper to grab any one of us and torture us if the President determined that the war effort required it. I cannot exaggerate how pernicious this argument is, and how incompatible it is with a free society. The Constitution does not make the President a King. This memo does." [The emphasis is Froomkin's.]

We would have slid far enough down a very slippery slope if the Bush administration had seen fit to limit its use of questionable interrogation techniques strictly to al-Qaida suspects in Afghanistan and at Guantánamo Bay. But it didn't. Instead, it imported them to Iraq, where they seem to have been applied widely to detainee populations that knew little, if anything, about specific threats against coalition troops or our Iraqi allies. In fact even the U.S. agrees that many of the detainees at Abu Ghraib prison were there simply because they had been at the wrong place at the wrong time. Well, too bad for them.

The Pentagon is now investigating the deaths of at least 32 Iraqis and 5 Afghans while in U.S. custody, AP reports:

"WASHINGTON (AP) - The Army has undertaken criminal investigations into the deaths of at least 32 Iraqis and five Afghans held by U.S. forces since August 2002, Pentagon officials revealed Friday. The deaths are from 33 separate cases, two of which involved more than one death. That is eight more cases than the Pentagon had publicly reported two weeks ago.

"Nine are active cases, and eight of those are classified as homicides involving suspected assaults of detainees before or during interrogation sessions. Two have been resolved as homicide cases. Four are called justifiable homicides and 15 have been classified as deaths by natural or undetermined cause, the Pentagon said.

"Of the total of 33 cases, 30 involve detainees who died inside a U.S.-run detention facility. In the three other cases, two Iraqis and one Afghani died while under U.S. control outside a facility."

Prisoner abuse on this scale gives the lie to the line, perpetuated by both Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and President Bush, that these were the acts of a few misguided individuals. This was a policy, and policies are not made by frontline grunts like those being disciplined in the Abu Ghraib mess, they are enacted by frontline grunts.

The news stemming from this disgraceful mess just keep rolling in, though most of it is being lost in the all Reagan all the time coverage of our former president's death, legacy and funeral. I'll limit myself to just a few pertinent items here:

"The disclosure that the Justice Department advised the White House in 2002 that the torture of al Qaeda terrorist suspects might be legally defensible has focused new attention on the role President Bush played in setting the rules for interrogations in the war on terrorism."
-- The Washington Post

"The Bush administration routinely bypassed or overruled Pentagon experts on international law and the Geneva convention to construct a sweeping legal justification for harsh tactics in the war on terror, the Guardian has learnt."
-- The Guardian, London

"WASHINGTON - The head of the interrogation center at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq told an Army investigator in February that he understood some of the information being collected from prisoners there had been requested by 'White House staff,' according to an account of his statement obtained by the Washington Post."
– The Washington Post

"LOUISVILLE, Ky., June 8 — Reversing itself, the Army said Tuesday that a G.I. was discharged partly because of a head injury he suffered while posing as an uncooperative detainee during a training exercise at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The Army had previously said Specialist Sean Baker's medical discharge in April was unrelated to the injury he received last year at the detention center, where the United States holds suspected terrorists."
-- The New York Times

The horrors of Abu Ghraib were not simply the acts of individual soldiers,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Abu Ghraib resulted from decisions made by the Bush administration to cast the rules aside.”
-- Human Rights Watch

"Two U.S. corporations conspired with U.S. officials to humiliate, torture and abuse persons detained by U.S. authorities in Iraq according to a class action lawsuit filed June 9, 2004, by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the Philadelphia law firm of Montgomery, McCracken, Walker and Rhoads. The suit, filed in federal court in San Diego, names as defendants the Titan Corporation of San Diego, California and CACI International of Arlington, Virginia and its subsidiaries, and three individuals who work for the companies. It charges them with violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and alleges that the companies engaged in a wide range of heinous and illegal acts in order to demonstrate their abilities to obtain intelligence from detainees, and thereby obtain more contracts from the government."
-- Center for Constitutional Rights

Is this still our America?

Posted by tbrown at 02:50 PM

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The torture onion


Blogs to watch

Abu Ardvark
Andrew Sullivan
Atrios Eschaton
Best of the Web
Drudge Report
Joe Conason (subscription required)
Josh Marshall
Kaus files
No More Mr. Nice Blog
Real Clear Politics
The Corner
The Volokh Conspiracy
The Whiskey Bar

Mideast blogs

Salam Pax (Iraq)
G. in Baghdad
L.T. Smash (U.S. military in Iraq)
Lady Sun (Iran)

City blogs

L.A. Examiner

Africa blogs

Cathy Buckle

Media blogs

Dan Gillmor's eJournal
Media Whores Online


Newspapers online (guide to papers on the web)
International Herald Tribune
The Guardian U.K.
New York Times (free registration required)

Economy blogs

Brad DeLong

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