Before it gets too far from Memorial Day, I wanted to tell you about Alberto J. Mora, the recently retired general counsel of the Navy. He was profiled in the New Yorker magazine back in February. It’s a very detailed and fairly shocking article describing the long and lonely battle he fought to stop th Bush administration’s policies on torture and cruelty. The article is shocking because it quite plainly reveals that these policies were conceived at the highest levels of government, and are hardly just the actions of the few, low-ranking “bad apples” who’ve been convicted of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib (as we’ve been told by the mainstream press). The article chronicles his many attempts to turn these polices around, but he was defeated at almost every turn. Here’s one aspect of the story:
…One document, which is marked “secret” but is not classified, is a twenty-two-page memo written by Mora. It shows that three years ago Mora tried to halt what he saw as a disastrous and unlawful policy of authorizing cruelty toward terror suspects.
The memo… reveals that Mora’s criticisms of Administration policy were unequivocal, wide-ranging, and persistent. Well before the exposure of prisoner abuse in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, in April, 2004, Mora warned his superiors at the Pentagon about the consequences of President Bush’s decision, in February, 2002, to circumvent the Geneva conventions, which prohibit both torture and “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.” He argued that a refusal to outlaw cruelty toward U.S.-held terrorist suspects was an implicit invitation to abuse. Mora also challenged the legal framework that the Bush Administration has constructed to justify an expansion of executive power, in matters ranging from interrogations to wiretapping. He described as “unlawful,” “dangerous,” and “erroneous” novel legal theories granting the President the right to authorize abuse. Mora warned that these precepts could leave U.S. personnel open to criminal prosecution.
…Mora’s memo, however, shows that almost from the start of the Administration’s war on terror the White House, the Justice Department, and the Department of Defense, intent upon having greater flexibility, charted a legally questionable course despite sustained objections from some of its own lawyers.
Mora had some victories. “America has a lot to thank him for,” Brant, the former head of the N.C.I.S., told me. But those achievements were largely undermined by a small group of lawyers closely aligned with Vice-President Cheney. In the end, Mora was unable to overcome formidable resistance from several of the most powerful figures in the government.
It is astonishing to me, still, that I should be here today addressing the issue of American cruelty — or that anyone would ever have to. Our forefathers, who permanently defined our civic values, drafted our Constitution inspired by the belief that law could not create but only recognize certain inalienable rights granted by God — to every person, not just citizens, and not just here but everywhere. Those rights form a shield that protects core human dignity. Because this is so, the Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel punishment. The constitutional jurisprudence of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments outlaws cruel treatment that shocks the conscience. The Geneva Conventions forbid the application of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment to all captives, as do all of the major human rights treaties adopted and ratified by our country during the last century.
Despite this, there was abuse. Not all were mistreated, but some were. For those mistreated, history will ultimately judge what the precise quantum of abuse inflicted was — whether it was torture or some lesser cruelty — and whether it resulted from official commission or omission, or occurred despite every reasonable effort to prevent the abuse. Whatever the ultimate historical judgment, it is established fact that documents justifying and authorizing the abusive treatment of detainees during interrogation were approved and distributed. These authorizations rested on three beliefs: that no law prohibited the application of cruelty; that no law should be adopted that would do so; and that our government could choose to apply the cruelty — or not — as a matter of policy depending on the dictates of perceived military necessity.
The fact that we adopted this policy demonstrates that this war has tested more than our nation’s ability to defend itself. It has tested our response to our fears and the measure of our courage. It has tested our commitment to our most fundamental values and our constitutional principles.
On the same day I read that, it was quite disorienting to juxtapose it with the commencement speech Bush gave at the US Military Academy:
“By the actions he took, the institutions he built, the alliances he forged and the doctrines he set down, President Truman laid the foundations for America’s victory in the cold war,” Mr. Bush told the class of 2006.
Mr. Bush has compared the struggle against communism to the current war against Islamic radicalism in previous speeches, but his address on Saturday was his most developed on the theme. He left it unsaid that Truman was deeply unpopular at the end of his two terms in office and that it took a generation to appreciate his achievements.
“Like the cold war, we are fighting the followers of a murderous ideology that despises freedom, questions all dissent, has territorial ambitions and pursues totalitarian aims,” Mr. Bush said. He added that “like Americans in Truman’s day, we are laying the foundations for victory.”
It’s understandable that, with his tattered popularity and his foreign policy in shambles, Bush would seek refuge in the legacy of Truman. But there is a very simple reason (among many others) that history will not judge the Bush Presidency in the same light as Truman’s. Truman was famous for the sign on his desk that read “the buck stops here.” It’s quite evident in the Bush administration that the buck stops nowhere. From the intelligence foul-ups on WMD to Abu Ghraib, and so many other bad decisions that it’s hard to keep track of them all, no one in authority has been held responsible for anything. A true leader stands up and takes the heat, yet Bush has been unable to even think of a single significant mistake he’s made as President. (Note that if you carefully read his response to the question the other day asking about any mistakes he thinks he made in Iraq – which was generally reported as an admission of fault – he doesn’t actually acknowledge doing anything wrong. He expressed concern that some of his comments may have been “misinterpreted,” and he says those involved with Abu Ghraib were brought to justice. Given that only the lowest-ranking soldiers have been held accountable, this doesn’t exactly meet the threshold of taking responsibility, let alone acknowledge that his decision to open the door to cruel treatment of prisoners might have had something to do with cruel treatment of prisoners.)