Break the Law, Get Promoted

In an editorial on Saturday, the Washington Post had this to say:

AT THE SENATE intelligence committee hearing Thursday on Gen. Michael V. Hayden’s nomination to head the CIA, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked the nominee a simple question: Is “waterboarding” an acceptable interrogation technique? Gen. Hayden responded: “Let me defer that to closed session, and I would be happy to discuss it in some detail.” That was the wrong answer. The right one would have been simple: No.

Today, 12 of the 15 members of the Intelligence Committee voted to confirm Hayden (including Feinstein), and there is no doubt the full Senate also will back him. What is the significance of Hayden’s exchange with Feinstein, and the committee’s vote to confirm him? First, let’s look at the definition of waterboarding:

Water Boarding: The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt…

“The person believes they are being killed, and as such, it really amounts to a mock execution, which is illegal under international law,” said John Sifton of Human Rights Watch.

…Many feel that a confession obtained this way is an unreliable tool. Two experienced officers have told ABC that there is little to be gained by these techniques that could not be more effectively gained by a methodical, careful, psychologically based interrogation. According to a classified report prepared by the CIA Inspector General John Helgerwon and issued in 2004, the techniques “appeared to constitute cruel, and degrading treatment under the (Geneva) convention,” the New York Times reported on Nov. 9, 2005.

It is “bad interrogation. I mean you can get anyone to confess to anything if the torture’s bad enough,” said former CIA officer Bob Baer.

Last Fall, the Senate overwhelmingly approved the McCain “anti-torture” amendment to the Defense bill (despite intense efforts by Dick Cheney to gut it), and at the signing ceremony, President Bush said that this would “make it clear to the world that this government does not torture and that we adhere to the international convention of torture.”

But then a few things happened: Bush issued a “signing statement” asserting the right to break the new law anyway, the Justice Department invented its own extraordinarily narrow definition of torture, and the administration moved aggressively to block any attempts at judicial review. Putting these three things together made the new law meaningless:

Mr. Bush issued a presidential signing statement saying his administration would interpret the new law “in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President to supervise the unitary executive branch and as Commander in Chief and consistent with the constitutional limitations on the judicial power.” The language refers to the assertion by the president’s lawyers that his powers allow him, in wartime, to ignore statutes passed by Congress. The White House has intimated that it has similar authority in justifying Mr. Bush’s authorization of surveillance of Americans without court approval, in violation of another law. The signing statement also advanced the administration’s view that the McCain amendment does not provide for any court review of a prisoner’s claim of cruel treatment, and that all appeals by foreign prisoners before the courts should be dismissed.

Even before the statement was issued, administration lawyers had taken the position that the McCain amendment would not necessarily end the use of waterboarding. “Cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” has been defined by the Senate as any act that would violate the Fifth, Eighth or 14th amendments of the Constitution. Yet according to the reasoning of the Justice Department, simulated drowning and other techniques falling just short of torture would still be permitted under this standard “in certain circumstances.” This extreme view has never been tested in court, sanctioned by Congress or even fully exposed to public view. Mr. Bush hopes to keep it that way. That’s why his administration has moved so aggressively to prevent prisoners’ cases from reaching federal courts and refused to release secret legal memos requested by Congress.

Glenn Greenwald sums up the importance of Senator Feinstein’s question:

The American people, through their Congress, decided overwhelmingly when the McCain anti-torture amendment was enacted into law that we do not want to be a country which uses interrogation techniques such as waterboarding. In light of the president’s signing statement reserving the right to violate that law, followed up by anonymous administration officials expressly claiming the president’s power to do so, whether the administration intends to obey this law is a pressing issue, and there is no excuse for Hayden’s refusing to answer that question publicly.

The question amounts to nothing more than an inquiry as to whether Hayden intends to obey the law as CIA Director. Although the Bush administration’s claimed right to break the law amazingly compels that such a question has to be asked, there is nothing secret about it. Americans have the right to know if the nominated CIA Director intends to follow the law.

It continues to amaze me that the Democrats, for the most part, are too timid to take on Bush for breaking the law, and to take on his radical, unprecedented notions of Presidential power. By letting these things stand, they not only look like a weak opposition party, they are also quietly surrendering Congress’ oversight authority. A vote to confirm General Hayden (who oversaw the warrantless wiretapping program) is a vote to support Presidential lawlessness, and it’s a vote for waterboarding, and a likely litany of other “just short of torture” techniques.

I’ll leave you with the words of retired sergeant major Eric Haney, a founding member of the Army’s elite counter-terrorist unit, Delta Force:

Q: What do you make of the torture debate? Cheney …

A: (Interrupting) That’s Cheney’s pursuit. The only reason anyone tortures is because they like to do it. It’s about vengeance, it’s about revenge, or it’s about cover-up. You don’t gain intelligence that way. Everyone in the world knows that. It’s worse than small-minded, and look what it does.

I’ve argued this on Bill O’Reilly and other Fox News shows. I ask, who would you want to pay to be a torturer? Do you want someone that the American public pays to torture? He’s an employee of yours. It’s worse than ridiculous. It’s criminal; it’s utterly criminal. This administration has been masters of diverting attention away from real issues and debating the silly. Debating what constitutes torture: Mistreatment of helpless people in your power is torture, period. And (I’m saying this as) a man who has been involved in the most pointed of our activities. I know it, and all of my mates know it. You don’t do it. It’s an act of cowardice. I hear apologists for torture say, “Well, they do it to us.” Which is a ludicrous argument. … The Saddam Husseins of the world are not our teachers. Christ almighty, we wrote a Constitution saying what’s legal and what we believed in. Now we’re going to throw it away.

Q: As someone who repeatedly put your life on the line, did some of the most hair-raising things to protect your country, and to see your country behave this way, that must be …

A: It’s pretty galling. But ultimately I believe in the good and the decency of the American people, and they’re starting to see what’s happening and the lies that have been told. We’re seeing this current house of cards start to flutter away. The American people come around. They always do.

One thought on “Break the Law, Get Promoted

  1. elendil says:

    Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and a few other NGOs, have designated June Torture Awareness Month. I’ve created a blogroll you can join if you’re interested. You can find it here. The idea is that everyone is linked to from the blogroll, and in exchange, you discuss torture (as you already do), and link to the Torture Awareness site to help support the NGOs.

    There’s a lot of bloggers concerned about human rights abuse in the War on Terror. If we coordinate, we can show our support and help Amnesty and HRW make Torture Awareness Month a success.

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