War Crimes?

In February, CIA Director Michael Hayden admitted that waterboarding, long considered torture, had been used on three terrorist suspects. When questioned about this, a spokesperson for the Bush administration claimed that waterboarding is legal, and that the president could authorize its use.

Sadly, the U.S. public’s reaction to this and other revelations about the administration’s scandalous justifications for the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” remains muted. Hearings in both the Senate and the House in June attempted to establish the origins of this policy and to debunk the administration’s efforts to blame a few “rotten apples” far down the chain of command for the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. In a piece of Orwellian doublespeak, President George W. Bush and countless administration spokespersons insist that the United States “doesn’t torture.” Yet the evidence that the cruel and inhumane treatment of prisoners, illegal under U.S. and international law, is “standard operating procedure” is incontrovertible. Writing in the preface to a new report from Physicians for Human Rights (Broken Laws, Broken Lives), retired Army Major General Antonio Taguba, the officer who investigated abuse at Abu Ghraib, argues that the Bush administration has committed war crimes.

The interrogation policy, which has resulted in the deaths of more than a hundred detainees, was instituted at the highest levels of the administration. Abusive interrogation, strongly resisted by military lawyers at every level, was in fact the brainchild of a small group of administration-appointed lawyers. Among those responsible were John Yoo of the Justice Department, one of the authors of the now notorious “torture memo,” former White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, former Defense Department General Counsel William J. Haynes II, and David Addington, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff. Addington is widely suspected to have pushed the policy through the government bureaucracy on behalf of the president, vice president, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Yoo, Haynes, and Addington finally appeared before Congress last month. Their testimony was evasive at best. Both Haynes and Yoo insisted that as lawyers their role was merely advisory and that “policy” decisions were made by others. Yet it was their dubious argument for the expansive, if not unchecked, authority of the president during “wartime” that became administration policy. At the very least, however, government lawyers have an obligation not merely to advocate for the interests of their “client,” the president, but to uphold the Constitution and the larger public good. The disastrous moral and political consequences of the supposedly value-neutral “legal” advice of the president’s lawyers were not hard to foresee.

Defenders of “enhanced interrogation” argue that the president and his lawyers had the moral clarity and the courage to face up to the unprecedented threat posed by Al Qaeda in the aftermath of 9/11, and to do what “had to be done” to protect the American people. Yet given an opportunity to demonstrate the courage of their convictions before Congress, all these men resorted to pettifogging obfuscation.

More edifying was the testimony of Alberto J. Mora, former general counsel of the U.S. Navy, and one of the military lawyers who stood up to the administration. “Our nation’s policy decision to use so-called ‘harsh’ interrogation techniques during the war on terror was a mistake of massive proportions,” Mora told the Senate Committee on Armed Services. Mora noted that while much of the public discussion has focused on the definition of “torture,” international and military law equally prohibits the “cruel” treatment of prisoners. “There is little or no moral distinction between cruelty and torture,” Mora pointed out, “for cruelty can be as effective as torture in savaging human flesh and spirit and in violating human dignity. Our efforts should be focused not merely on banning torture, but on banning cruelty.” Mora further argued that harsh interrogation has damaged efforts to fight terrorism. Our allies, who regard the abuse of prisoners as a crime, will no longer fully cooperate with us. And in Iraq, our military commanders judge Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo to have been a boon to the insurgency’s recruitment, and thus a leading cause of U.S. casualties.

Elsewhere Mora has spoken of how the abuse of prisoners threatens the dignity of us all, and he has deplored the administration’s efforts to build public support for the cruel treatment of “terrorists.” Those efforts have eroded the moral consensus against torture. To help rebuild that consensus, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has recently released a useful study guide (Torture Is a Moral Issue). Those who inflict cruelty, the bishops remind us, do irreparable damage not only to their victims, but also to themselves.

July 8, 2008


Related: Truth & Consequences, by the Editors

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