September 16th, 2006

V for Vendetta

Burying the Lede Again: It's Not about the DEFINITION of Torture

Like a lot of "dry alcoholics," President Bush almost never lets himself show any anger. And to keep that anger out of his voice, he talks very slowly, with an almost sing-song pitch. Frankly, even when I want to know what he's saying, I usually find this self-enforced blandness in his speech sleep-inducing; I literally can not stay awake while listening to the man's voice for more than a minute or two. I end up, usually, having to read the text off the White House web site the next day. But that hasn't been a problem for me in the last couple of days. The blandness is gone. The President has thrown emotional self-censorship out the window. He's royally pissed off. It's probably not the first time in the last six years that he's been made angry, but this time it's over the top. This time it's a bridge too far. No, this time he's pissed off and he doesn't care if we know about it. I got my first view of this watching a stand-up interview with Matt Lauer in the White House. It went perfectly normally, and I might have slipped off to sleep again ... until Matt Lauer started asking follow-up questions, trying to put the President on the record about one particular issue. The President lost his temper, and started yelling, and leaned in on Matt Lauer like a drill sergeant berating a substandard recruit. He then went on to give a couple of angry speeches on the same subject over the next couple of days. But then, during Friday's press conference, another NBC reporter David Gregory asked an extremely well-crafted question back on that subject, and this time the President went truly ballistic.

The subject in question is that over the last weekend, the White House complied with the Supreme Court's ruling in Hamdan v Rumsfeld and shut down the secret prisons where, in former Soviet gulags all over eastern Europe, the CIA was using what the President euphemistically calls "harsh questioning" on 14 "high value" al Qaeda prisoners in an attempt to torture them into betraying al Qaeda operatives and plans. Per Supreme Court order, those 14 prisoners have been transferred to our more permanent detainment camp in the US-occupied legal limbo of the eastern tip of Cuba, Guantanamo Bay. And it is against this backdrop that the White House attempted to get the Armed Forces Subcommittees of both houses of Congress to pass yet another "clarification" of the rules for interrogating accused terrorists. The White House version sailed right through the House committee (something I haven't seen reported on enough). But in the Senate, 4 of the Republicans on the evenly divided committee said flatly "NO," sided with the unanimous Democratic members of the committee, and passed their own version of the bill that 100% flatly contradicts the White House bill. Among those leading the revolt were the only member of the US Senate to have himself been tortured in violation of the Geneva Conventions while being held as a prisoner of war, John McCain, and the most ardently pro-military senator in the whole US congress, John Warner.

It took David Gregory to do the best job of explaining why the revolt happened, with a hypothetical question during Friday's press conference: what if North Korea were to capture a CIA operative, one of our people who might meet the same definition of non-uniformed non-regular combatant -- would we want the North Koreans to feel that they had the right to re-interpret the Geneva Conventions according to their own standards and their own needs when they were questioning that guy? I wonder if Gregory realizes that this isn't, exactly, a hypothetical -- it actually happened in one famous case. When Iranian radicals seized the US embassy in Tehran, Iran back in 1979, one of the people they caught inside was the CIA's top agent in the region. They tortured that man to death over several days. They videotaped the whole thing, and distributed that tape pretty widely throughout the Middle East because using torture, they managed to extract from him a complete confession of the CIA's role in the torture and murder of thousands of suspected anti-Shah-of-Iran dissidents and their families and friends. Considering how essential it was to the (now) Iranian government that they obtain that information, and considering that (since what they did to him was nothing more or less than what his agents had done to them and their families) it rather obviously didn't "shock the conscience" of the interrogators, would the President or his ever-fewer remaining backers like to extend, retroactively, to the barbarians who seized our embassy back then the "right" under the Geneva Conventions to "clarify" and "re-interpret" the Third Geneva Convention? Or was that, in fact, like virtually every other step the Iranians took during that crisis, a festering war crime for which we're entitled to still be angry and to still hope, some day, for convictions and reparations?

In response to this, the White House has posted to their web site a rather interesting rebuttal. In "Now and Then: Editorials on the McCain Amendment," the White House points out that their version of the bill cites the 2005 McCain Amendment as being included in the definition of what is torture, and that the same people who're going ballistic over their new bill claimed at the time that the McCain Amendment was more than sufficient, went beyond what was needed, to keep the US in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. But, I argue, this is not a point they ought to want to be winning. Because if what the President so angrily yelled at Matt Lauer and David Gregory and others is true, then what is the President so angry about? I wonder if I know what it is that they're not saying. I don't think it's the murkiness of the "clarification" of the definition of torture that is the part of the White House version of the bill that is so important to them. I think it's something else, something much more interesting to speculate about why they need it so badly that the President is losing his last vestige of self control at the thought he won't get it.

I wish I could still find a copy of their version online to show you. I can't tonight for some reason, but I remember that buried underneath the murky prose about torture is a small chunk of text regarding what should happen if any American is accused, under the War Crimes Act, of violating the Third Geneva Convention. The White House asked Congress to declare that it would be a sufficient legal defense if the person accused of a war crime "reasonably believed" that what they were doing was legal. Why is that important? Well, let's see. Let's go back and look and see who "reasonably believed" that it was perfectly legal to use things that the Third Geneva Convention, and all laws on torture, prohibit while questioning people like Khalid Sheik Mohammad. That'd be ... US Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and President George W. Bush.

You see, if they haven't already done so, any day now those 14 torture victims are going to get their first meeting with the famously neutral and professional prisoner-treatment experts of the International Committee of the Red Cross. When they do, we're all going to hear the details of how the CIA questioned those 14 prisoners. I strongly suspect that when we do, we're going to wish for the "good old days" when we thought the casual depredations and random sexual sadism of Georgia, Texas, and Alabama prison guards at Abu Ghraib was as bad as it got. And when it comes out, as it frankly already has in every way but the grotesque details, that George W. Bush signed an executive order approving that treatment, he's going to have a big, big problem. Violating the War Crimes Act isn't just any old "high crimes and misdemeanors" -- it's a death penalty offense. While in office, the President enjoys a tiny slice of limited immunity, but his close friends don't. And even if the Democrats don't get enough numbers in November to pursue impeachment next spring, even if they do get the numbers and decide not to, come January 2009 he could easily be facing a death penalty war crimes trial here in the US.

So it is very important to him to try to get Congress to sign off on the following argument. The Albert Gonzalez "torture memo" outlined a new, never tested before, novel legal theory as to why the Geneva Convention didn't apply while interrogating members of the Taliban and al Qaeda. George Bush really, really wants to be able to say with a straight face that he believed what his lawyer told him when he said that this was legal. That because this theory hadn't been tried yet in the Supreme Court, it was reasonable for him to believe his lawyer. That as soon as the theory was proven false when it didn't hold up in front of the Supreme Court, he stopped. And that therefore, he should be let off the hook. Now, I suggest that you ask any criminal defense attorney if, "I thought what I was doing was legal" is sufficient defense in any criminal trial? No, it's not. And that, not any "confusion" about what the Third Geneva Convention defines as torture, may well be what's cost the President his usual self-control this week.

Postscript: I've gone on at too much length for one day already. But if you agree with the administration that whether it was legal or not, this was something we had to do to prevent another 9/11? You're wrong about that, too, say the government's own experts on stopping terrorism. I really, really, really recommend that you read Ron Suskind's analysis piece from the September 10th, 2006's Time magazine: "The Unofficial Story of the al-Qaeda 14."