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Weissman: Gonzales and the Horse He Rode In On

Torture - From J.F.K. to Baby Bush (Part II of III):
Gonzales and the Horse He Rode In On

By Steve Weissman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Tuesday 04 January 2005
See also PART I & PART III

"Torture is abhorrent both to American law and values and to international norms."
-- U.S. Department of Justice, Office of the Legal Counsel30 December 2004

"For the purposes of this Convention, the term "torture" means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession ..."
-- Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, signed and ratified by the United States

When Alberto Gonzales assured Mr. Bush that presidential war powers trumped anti-torture laws and treaties, the White House lawyer was doing what too many of his profession do. Like an ENRON tax lawyer or Mafia consigliere, he was helping his client commit crimes.

Big crimes. War crimes. Not Private Lyndie England having a good time forcing naked Iraqi captives with sacks of over their heads to masturbate at Abu Ghraib, though Gonzales's words certainly led to the subsequent scandal. His sin was far more substantial. As Counsel to the President, he enabled and encouraged the systematic use of torture, duly authorized by the Commander-in-Chief.

Rule of law? Due process? Fair trials? The presumption of innocence? Don't be silly. In the new post-9/11 paradigm propounded by Gonzales, these hard-won victories of the past sound as "quaint" as the Geneva Conventions with their old-fashioned idea that Prisoners of War need reveal only their name, rank, and serial number.

Former Attorneys General like Eliot Richardson, who resigned during Watergate, would have highlighted the limits prescribed by American and international law. Attorney Gonzales elaborated legal language to dodge those limits. His job, as he saw it, was essentially political - to give Mr. Bush cosmetic cover to do exactly what he wanted.

Other political lawyers - the ones we call judges and Justices - might or might not subsequently tell the President that he'd overstepped the line. But Gonzales knew they would not even consider the issue until long after Mr. Bush had done most of the damage he intended. And, when finally in court, the President's lawyers would have his legal defense in hand, ready to show that he tried to remain within the law as it was explained to him.

Gonzales was performing a legal burlesque, much as he will on Wednesday, when the Senate Judiciary Committee examines whether he is suited to become Attorney General. Will the Senators applaud the charade? Or will a few brave souls among them stand up and say what, on the face of it, seems hard to deny - that Mr. Gonzales has shamed his country, his profession, and himself.

For a people who talk so much about "moral values," it seems bizarre even to consider a conspirator in war crimes to be our top legal officer. But after four years of pious John Ashcroft, I suppose we need a new low.

Adding to this shameful mockery, the Department of Justice has just issued a new memo on torture, dated December 30, 2004, and signed by the Acting Assistant Attorney General, Daniel Levin. Senators, beware! The new memo does not challenge Mr. Gonzales's earlier advice that presidents have the power to reject the Geneva Conventions in dealing with "unlawful enemy combatants."

The administration uses the term to describe enemy fighters who - like al-Qaeda terrorists - belong to no regular national army. Mr. Bush could as easily apply the designation to terrorists, insurgents, rebels, and resistors fighting American occupation, whether in Iraq or any other country he chooses to "liberate."

Mr. Levin's memo does make marginal changes, but none that will stop most C.I.A. and military interrogators from continuing to do what they've been doing in Afghanistan, at Guantanamo, and at scores of secret American detention centers all over the world.

Earlier, Mr. Gonzales and the Bush Administration had defined torture as inflicting excruciating pain "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death." This gave a bogus legality to the C.I.A. and military as they inflicted on their captives a whole range of cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment.

In Levin's new definition, the word torture now encompasses lesser degrees of physical pain, as well as mental pain and suffering. But the T-word still seems purposely to exclude such primarily psychological techniques as making prisoners remain for hours in uncomfortable positions, assaulting them with loud music or repetitive sounds, prolonged sensory deprivation, denial of food and sleep, forced enemas, and leaving captives shackled for long periods in their own excrement.

These are some of the Stress and Duress techniques that insiders like to call Torture-Lite. As a now declassified C.I.A. manual explains, the goal is not to inflict pain, excruciating or otherwise, but "to induce psychological regression in the subject by bringing a superior outside force to bear on his will to resist."

More obvious brutality often stiffens resistance by creating a battle of wills between torturer and victim. Stress and Duress sets the conflict within the captive's own body and mind, eating away at his or her adult personality and creating a child-like state of dependence.

Arguably, this does more lasting psychological damage to victims and causes them far greater mental suffering. In any case, competent international authorities like the Red Cross consider many Stress and Duress techniques a form of both physical and psychological torture. The new U.S. definition - like the old - does not, leaving the C.I.A. and military free to continue using them.

Senators, the ball is now in your court. Please do not let Mr. Gonzales fool you - or the American people - into believing that torture has stopped or that the U.S. has returned to the Geneva Conventions. We've had enough lies. It's time to clean out the stables.


Your Feedback

In my last column, I wrote:

Without exposing the whole range of American torture, any reform will leave much of it in place. Is that something most Democrats - or decent Republicans - want to let happen?

The vast majority who replied agreed that we should expose all American torture, whether done under Democratic or Republican administrations. Only two felt we should lay off the Democrats. Two others supported torture, whether Democratic or Republican.

Beverly Crane offered her own confirmation of what I wrote:

In the late 60's, after college, I lived in West Berlin for a year. During most of that time I was a nanny in the home of an American diplomat who was in charge of security for the American sector. Nearly every day he would almost proudly regale me with thinly disguised allusions to how he tortured people in order to get them to talk. ("The poor guy fell down the stairs and broke about every bone in his body. Imagine that, ha ha.") As an idealistic young college graduate from a staunchly Republican family, I was appalled, and remain so until this day.

As much as I dislike Bush and all he stands for, perhaps his excesses will bring the light of day to what has too long been hidden. Thank you for shining the first light. Hopefully more will come.

Edmund McWilliams left me a bit stunned:

I was myself a military interrogator in Vietnam - though that was at the end of the war and my exposure to such measures was indirect and pedestrian in comparison to what had gone on there before ... and since.

Mr. McWilliams also served as a State Department foreign service officer for 27 years, helping expose the human rights abuses of the Soviet Union and its client states. But, he writes, "I began to realize the hypocrisy of attacking the Soviets and their allies - without condemning what our allies in Indonesia, Egypt, etc. were doing."

I did some checking and discovered - in the t r u t h o u t archives, of all places - that Mr. McWilliams had served as the State Department's special envoy to the Afghan resistance in 1988-89. From that experience, he warned that "American authority and billions of dollars in taxpayer funding had been hijacked at the war's end by a ruthless anti-American cabal of Islamists and Pakistani intelligence officers determined to impose their will on Afghanistan."

In response, C.I.A. officials spread stories that he might be homosexual or an alcoholic, and he was subsequently forced to resign for telling the truth. (See Chalmers Johnson, Abolish the CIA)

Mr. McWilliams, you honor us all.

Personally, the most useful comment came in an email from Bill O'Connor:

I view myself more as a Republican although not so registered. It demeans your point when you say "Is that something most Democrats - or decent Republicans - want to let happen?" There are many decent Democrats and Republicans, to use a broad brush to taint others is shameful. People have honest differences of opinion and using such language makes the recipient react to the package, not the message. You seem to defeat your purpose of trying to reach out, unless you've written off folks like me.

Bill, you are absolutely right, and I was absolutely wrong. I'll try to be more open.

Please keep your emails coming. I read them all, and try to answer as many personally I can. Please indicate if you have any objection to my using your name or reprinting your comments.


A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he writes for t r u t h o u t.

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