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Steve Weissman: Torture in the Senate

Torture - From J.F.K. to Baby Bush (Part III of III):
Torture in the Senate

By Steve Weissman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Thursday 13 January 2005
See also PART I & PART II

We do not condone torture. I have never ordered torture. I will never order torture.
President George W. Bush - June 22, 2004

U.S. senators now face a clear-cut choice: Will they go along with President Bush and confirm Alberto Gonzales as his new Attorney General. Or will they take a strong, principled stand against America's use of torture.

Democratic and Republican senators alike can hem, haw, and hedge, as did Mr. Gonzales when he testified last week before the Judiciary Committee. They can pretend that the vote is no big deal and only business as usual. But they cannot hide how they vote on the nomination. And, unless a handful of brave souls block confirmation with a filibuster, senators will not escape blame when America becomes - in fact and in the eyes of the world - even more of a rogue nation.

Americans barely see how much damage torture does to our interests, to say nothing of our values. In last week's hearing, the Judiciary Committee's ranking Democrat - Senator Patrick Leahy - gave two chilling examples.

"The searing photographs from Abu Ghraib have made it harder to create and maintain the alliances we need to prevail against the vicious terrorists who threaten us," he told Mr. Gonzales. "And those abuses serve as recruiting posters for the terrorists."

Leahy and others worried as well about the Bush Administration's rejection of the Geneva Conventions in Afghanistan, at Guantánamo, and - we now learn - for non-Iraqis captured in Iraq. Saying no to Geneva, senators warned, threatens the safety of America's fighting men and women everywhere, undermines military discipline, and puts GIs at risk of violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which specifically makes it a crime to abuse, let alone torture, a detainee.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a southern Republican and military lawyer in the Air Force Reserve, went in some ways even further. While he agreed with Gonzales that the U.S. had no legal obligation to apply the Geneva Conventions to "unlawful enemy combatants," he feared that rejecting Geneva did far more harm than good.

"We have lost our way," he told Gonzales. "We lost the moral high ground."

One last fear - too often ignored - hits even closer to home. If we torture foreigners, we will increasingly torture American citizens. Witness the brutal treatment in Afghanistan of the so-called "American Taliban," John Walker Lindh, of the Louisiana-born Yaser Hamdi in Afghanistan and Guantánamo, and of the Virginian Ahmed Abu Ali, whom U.S. officials reportedly got the Saudis to arrest and torture. And these are just the start of the slippery slope.

Testifying to the senators, the Harvard-trained Gonzales skillfully fudged and filibustered. He abhorred torture, he told them. He was sickened by the photos of Abu Ghraib. And he was certain that President Bush never did - and never will - order or tolerate the use of torture "under any circumstances."

Was attorney Gonzales lying?

Well, as we learned from Bill Clinton, in Washington everything depends on definitions. Mr. Gonzales and the administration define "torture" NOT to include water boarding, where we strap detainees to a board, wrap them in a wet towel, force them under water, and make them believe they will drown.

Nor does their definition include burying alive, extended sensory deprivation, stress positions, sexual humiliation, and other Stress and Duress techniques that the United States military and C.I.A. continue to use regularly at Guantánamo and America's gulag of secret detention centers around the world.

The International Red Cross, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and most of the rest of the world call what America does torture. Mr. Gonzales and the Bush Administration do not. Not in their earlier "Torture Memos." And not in the new definitions that the Department of Justice issued on December 30.

As I tried to show last week, this definitional dodge goes back as far as J.F.K., and all subsequent presidents - Democrat as well as Republican - have gone along with it. So has the U.S. Senate, especially in its official reservations in confirming the U.N. Convention Against Torture.

Senators, it's time now to come clean. Vote for Gonzales and you back America's continuing use of torture. Filibuster his confirmation, and you tell the world that at least some Americans are beginning to find the way back.


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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