The national debate on torture reached a new level in October when the Senate voted 90 to nine to restrict Defense Department interrogation techniques and prohibit the “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” of anyone in U.S. custody. The vote came as a major rebuke to President George Bush, who threatened to veto the military spending bill if the proposals were included.
Bush responded to the vote by publicly defending the United States’ existing practices. During his Latin American tour in early November, he said, “We are gathering information about where the terrorists may be hiding. We are trying to disrupt their plots and plans. Anything we do … in this effort, any activity we conduct is within the law. We do not torture.”
Yet earlier that very week, Vice President Dick Cheney pleaded with Republican senators in a closed door meeting to exempt the CIA from the cruelty ban. The administration clearly does not like having its bluff called.
To understand the panic buzzing through the White House, you have to understand its philosophy. The administration has consistently read the law so as to minimize the protections offered to official enemies and maximize the power of the president. This approach has shaped almost every aspect of the “war on terror” – the suspension of the Geneva Conventions in Afghanistan, the designation of prisoners as “enemy combatants,” the establishment of “military tribunals” immune to the usual rules of evidence and procedure, and the effort to establish prisons beyond any court’s jurisdiction (first in Guantánamo, now secretly in Eastern Europe), as well as the exceedingly narrow definition of “torture” crafted by the Justice Department in 2002.
In keeping with this approach, the administration has cast certain adversaries beyond the protection of human rights law. As John McCain, the author of the Senate’s anti-torture amendment, explained, “a strange legal determination was made that the prohibition in the Convention Against Torture against cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment does not legally apply to foreigners held outside the U.S. They can, apparently, be treated inhumanely. This is the administration’s position. … What all this means is that America is the only country in the world that asserts a legal right to engage in cruel and inhuman treatment.” The proposed changes would close the loophole.
President Bush is clearly in a precarious position. The McCain amendment is just one of a whole barrage of challenges currently aimed at his style of government. Along with the Senate’s vote on the treatment of prisoners, the administration is facing uncertain domestic and diplomatic consequences following the revelation of secret CIA prisons in Poland and Romania. At the same time, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture is demanding full access to the captives at Guantánamo Bay, and the Supreme Court has agreed to rule on the legitimacy of the planned military tribunals. In September, soldiers with the 82nd Airborne gave Human Rights Watch detailed accounts of brutality against prisoners – including beatings with baseball bats – and the refusal of commanding officers to intervene. More recently, the Army indicted five soldiers with the 75th Ranger Regiment – bringing the total number facing discipline for abusing prisoners to 230 since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan. And an Italian prosecutor has indicted 13 CIA operatives for kidnapping a Muslim cleric in Milan and flying him to Egypt to be tortured.
The question of torture also links to the broader crisis concerning the legitimacy of the war itself. Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Colin Powell told the U.N. Security Council that Iraq had trained al-Qaeda in the use of chemical and biological weapons. The source for this erroneous information was an al-Qaeda trainer, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who was arrested in Pakistan, handed over to the CIA and sent to Egypt for questioning. Recently declassified Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) documents show that intelligence analysts recognized the Iraq – al-Qaeda connection as fictitious before Powell’s speech. A DIA report concluded that “it is more likely this individual [al-Libi] is intentionally misleading the debriefers.” And why would he do that? Well, as a former FBI agent involved with the investigation told the New Yorker, “Administration officials were always pushing us to come up with links, but there weren’t any. The reason they got bad information is that they beat it out of him.”
Under the circumstances, Bush’s “We do not torture” has all the persuasive force of Nixon’s “I am not a crook.”