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Bush's Torture Deceit: Depends on What "Is" Is

Bush's Torture Deceit: Depends on What "Is" Is


By Bernard Weiner
The Crisis Papers

You know the drill: Bush&Co. are so secretive that they will not, repeat NOT, release internal decision-making documents to the public. Never, ever.

Oh, yes, there is a teeny exception: When the Bush Administration is taking unbearable heat on one scandal or another, suddenly stacks of secret documents are delivered to the press.

That's what happened, you remember, with Bush's AWOL scandal -- after years of denying any reports existed, a sheaf of documents materialized, although conveniently missing key medical and pay records, thus proving nothing. And now they're using the same technique -- what the Nixon crew during the Watergate scandal called a "modified, limited hangout" -- with regard to the Bush Administration's torture-scandal.

A number of documents deemed helpful to the Administration were handed out to the press last week, including a Bush letter dated February 7, 2002 that supposedly "rescinded" earlier memos on torture by Administration attorneys, and supposedly ordered "humane" treatment for prisoners.

ANYTHING TO STOP THE BLEEDING

The political fallout from the various Administration torture-memos -- those prepared for Rumsfeld, Ashcroft and the White House, that earlier had been leaked to the press -- was simply too damaging. Something had to be done.

White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales said the latest documents, and the Bush letter, were being released because the Administration "felt it was harmful to this country in terms of the notion that we may be engaged in torture." In other words, Bush's 2002 letter on torture was being made public not because torture is illegal and immoral (and usually counter-productive to boot), and thus must be rooted out, but because of the public-relations damage this whole scandal was bringing to the United States. And, left unsaid, "to our election chances in November."

The political bleeding somehow had to be stopped.

Those Administratioin torture memos -- which we now know were not solely the work of Justice and Defense attorneys but which also were vetted by the White House Counsel, lawyers at the National Security Council and staffers at Cheney's office -- were designed to provide Bush legal cover for state-approved torture. More importantly, they asserted that Bush, as Commander-in-Chief, was above the reach of the law.

After the release of the secret papers to the press last week, Bush unequivocably said: "I have never ordered torture. I will never order torture. The values of this country are such that torture is not a part of our soul and our being."

That statement -- including Bush&Co.'s definition of the word "torture" -- can use some careful scrutiny.

Behind the headlines -- designed to take Bush off the defensive and put him on offense, making him look like a force for morality and decency -- was the fact that even though he claimed the Administration had "rescinded" the torture memos for reworking, he did not renounce the ignore-the-Geneva-Convention philosophy behind them; Gonzales said: "The analyses underpinning the president's decisions stand and are not being reviewed."

In addition, in the February 2002 "humane-treatment" letter, Bush gave himself a number of "outs" that keep in place many of the controversial torture techniques.

LOOPHOLES TO PERMIT TORTURE

For example, Bush continues to assert the right to place himself above the law -- out of reach of Congress and the courts -- whenever he feels the need to do so. Bush said in the Feb. 2002 letter: "I accept the legal conclusion of the Attorney General and the Department of Justice that I have the authority to suspend Geneva (conventions) as between the United States and Afghanistan. I reserve the right to exercise this authority in this or future conflicts."

In addition, Bush's written command in that 2002 letter -- ordering U.S. forces to obey all the laws of humane treatment of prisoners -- contains a huge, glaring caveat: “As a matter of policy, the United States Armed Forces shall continue to treat detainees humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity,<-i> in a manner consistent with the principles of Geneva.” (emphasis supplied)

In other words, if the head jailer at one of the many U.S. prison camps around the world determines that "military necessity" requires violations of U.S. anti-torture laws or international anti-torture conventions, he would be justified in carrying out what is euphemistically called "harsh interrogation techniques," to wit: torture. It has been so ordered (and not rescinded) by a written command of the President of the United States.

Attorney Michael Froomkin notes of the Bush order: "It’s also important to keep the confusing timeline straight. The OLC [Ashcroft's Office of Legal Counsel] torture memo was delivered in August 2002, i.e. several months >i this order. Thus, it is clear that this command, in Feb. 2002, to be 'humane' was not the last word on the subject in the minds of all policy makers, including the President’s closest advisors, such as Gonzales, his Legal Counsel. And we know that the Walker Group [Rumsfeld's Pentagon lawyers working to draft their now-infamous torture memo] was still chewing on the torture question in March 2003..."

IGNORING BUSH'S "COMMANDS"

So, one can reasonably view Bush's 2002 letter as little more than a cover-my-ass document, designed so that Bush later could assert: See, I told them what to do, and somehow by the time the "humane" order went down the chain of command, there were distortions and beyond-the-pale behavior by a few "bad apple" officers and troops. I'm in the clear.

But it also seems clear that none of the Bush Administration lawyers -- in the White House or in Ashcroft's Justice Department or in Rumsfeld's Defense Department -- paid the slightest attention to the Bush commands, because they were aware that Bush's letter was not to be taken seriously as policy. After all, three departments of the Bush Administration had been ordered to work for more than a year and a half, well past the time when Bush's letter was written, to devise justifications precisely for harsh interrogation techniques.

And so the Ashcroft/Rumsfield working group continued (over the objections of State Department lawyers) trying to hammer out ways around the anti-torture laws and treaties, and eventually came up with all sorts of horrific justifications for torture and for turning Bush into a dictator beyond the reach of U.S. and international law.

The word went down the chain of command and the torturing took off big time in Cuba, Afghanistan, Iraq and no doubt at other U.S. prisons around the world -- with more than 37 detainees (that we know of) dying while in U.S. custody, many of them during or after harsh interrogations. Col. Thomas Pappas, in charge of military intelligence at Abu Ghraib, reportedly said, after witnessing the death of a prisoner while being interrogated, that if he is charged with the crime, "I'm not going to go down alone for this."

TORTURED DEFINITION OF "TORTURE"

Let us now move on to a variant on what the definition of "is" is.

Bush&Co. prefer to use the term "abuse," because they've altered the common-sense meaning of the word "torture."

Torture, according to the new Bush legal doctrine, is pain so intense as to come close to death. The Justice Department's August 1, 2002, legal memo concluded that "the ban on torture is limited to only the most extreme forms of physical and mental harm," which the document defined as akin to "death or organ failure." Behaviors other than that -- non-lethal beatings, threats to kill their families, humiliations, near-drownings, etc. -- might be "abuse," and certainly are outlawed under international treaties on torture and prisoner-care, but they are not "torture" under the Bush Administration definition.

So when Bush says he never ordered "torture" and never would order "torture," he may be telling a kind of twisted truth in his mind -- because Bush and his subordinates, torturing the English language and perverting the meaning of morality, changed the common-sense and dictionary definitions of torture to refer only to brutalizing a prisoner just short of death.

RESIGNATION, IMPEACHMENT OR VOTED OUT

Bush told a BBC reporter last week that people should feel "comforted" on the torture issue by knowing that the American people and American troops follow "the law." But, Bush and his morally-suspect attorneys and advisors have made Bush the final arbiter of what "the law" is. Hitler, let us not forget, operated within "the law" -- because he took over the judicial system and radically changed the laws to suit his nefarious purposes -- so good Germans could make themselves believe they were carrying out "lawful orders." Not much is different here, even given the Nuremburg war-crimes precedent that carrying out immoral orders is not a legitimate defense.

If it is not unlawful to brutalize a prisoner -- who may be a totally innocent civilian, caught up in a street sweep -- just short of the point of near-death, what is the meaning of the word "torture"? Words need to bear some connection to reality; Bush and his lawyers, as a technique of immoral deception, have distorted and strangled the meaning of words, such as torture, to the point of absurdity. (And in doing so have put any captured American troops at great risk of torture or death while in captivity.)

And why? To confuse the voting public, obviously, as we get closer to November 2. But also to demonstrate that Bush&Co. remain in control, to stay in and consolidate their power, to keep their extremist neo-con goals on track. And because they can.

In Bush&Co.'s brash arrogance, they are convinced that they are untouchable, invincible -- partially because they assume God is on their side and thus whatever they do enjoys divine blessing.

It is true: you can fool some of the people all the time, all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time. More and more American citizens, looking at the crimes and lies of their government, have decided they will not be fooled anymore. And more and more of those Americans are good Republicans, who have come to understand that the incompetent ideologues of Bush&Co. are not operating in their best financial or political or national interest.

(Even the U.S. Supreme Court seems to agree, at least partially, with that conclusion. On Monday, the court provided some evidence that they may not agree with this executive overreach into their judicial prerogatives, when they ruled that even terrorist suspects at U.S. prisons must have access to the judicial system.)

My guess is that if Bush and Cheney and Rove and Ashcroft and Rumsfeld and the rest of them chose to resign now, America would let them go unscathed, just to be rid of them.

But, since Bush&Co. are determined to brazen it out, to continue their extremist, dangerous ways -- which are getting hundreds upon hundreds of young American troops killed, and many thousands injured, and which are doing great damage to our beloved Constitution and the Bill of Rights -- the only way to deal with this crew is to impeach them and/or vote them out of office and then to indict at least some of them for their crimes that have so disgraced and harmed our nation.

If this sounds too "harsh," just remember the amount of lives and treasure lost, and that are continuing to be lost daily, because of their greedy, power-hungry policies, and their incompetent handling of virtually everything they touch. It's time someone pays the price for such gross misconduct and maladministration. It's long past time.

***************

Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., taught American government at various universities, was a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle for nearly two decades, and co-edits The Crisis Papers ( www.crisispapers.org). He is a contributor to the just-released "Big Bush Lies," available at Barnes&Noble, Amazon.com and local bookstores.


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