Naked City

War Drums: Let's Talk Torture

Naked City

Somewhat lost in the backwash of last week's National Orgy of Sanctimony in honor of a fictional character named "Ronald Reagan" – who saved the planet from the International Red Menace as well the Plague of Too Many Trees – were a series of revelations about the George W. Bush administration's ongoing Secret Love Affair With Torture. Although both the Pentagon and the White House have insisted repeatedly that the notorious abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib were committed by a handful of rogue soldiers, classified memos recently obtained by The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post have revealed a continuing secret effort by administration officials to expand the definition of permissible "interrogation techniques" for the "war on terror" and to justify any such practices as legally defensible and not subject to international rules like the Geneva Convention. For example, a Justice Department memo prepared by then Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee – later promoted to a federal judgeship – argues that torture "must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death."

President Bush was asked last week about the legal memoranda, prepared for the CIA, the Defense Department, and the White House, dating from at least January of 2002 and arguing, among other things, that 1) only "severe" or extreme and long-lasting pain can constitute torture; 2) that "terrorists" (as defined by their captors) are not protected by international treaties against torture; and that 3) in any case, torturers would not be liable for any mistreatment of prisoners committed under orders. Bush replied, "What I've authorized is that we stay within U.S. law." Of course, the memos also argue that "within U.S. law," the president (as commander-in-chief during "war time") can approve any form of treatment of captured prisoners and yet be subject neither to international treaties nor even U.S. federal law. More than one commentator recalled Richard Nixon's notorious rationalization in the Watergate burglary, "If the president does it, then it's not against the law."

The administration continues to insist that despite the memos – which Attorney General John Ashcroft flatly refused to provide to Congress last week, even though they are readily available on the Internet – it continues to comply with U.S. and international law and treats prisoners humanely. However, it has acknowledged that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld specifically authorized at least 24 interrogation techniques (not fully enumerated) that had been previously banned by the armed services, for use against prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay.

Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch told The Washington Post, "It is by leaps and bounds the worst thing I've seen since this whole Abu Ghraib scandal broke. It appears that what they were contemplating was the commission of war crimes and looking for ways to avoid legal accountability. The effect is to throw out years of military doctrine and standards on interrogations."

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federal policy, Bush administration, George W. Bush, Iraq, torture, John Ashcroft, Human Rights Watch

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