Revolution #62, September 24 2006
Bush on a Mission to Legalize Torture
Craig Murray's Stand on Torture and Fascism
“What does that mean, ‘outrages upon human dignity’?”
-George W. Bush
George Bush remains on the rampage. Starting with a pro-torture rant of a speech on September 6, Bush is demanding that Congress remove legal obstacles to torture by U.S. interrogators. The legacy of kidnapping, detaining, torturing, and killing people without even a pretense of a trial since 9/11/01 is a nightmare. What Bush is proposing is a whole fascist leap beyond what has gone on up to now.
In his September 6 speech, and in several speeches, interviews, and press conferences since, Bush constantly evokes the attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001 to justify torture as an essential component of the “war on terror,” which he says is about protecting the American people. But the so-called “war on terror” is a war for empire, and in that context, wholesale torture is not in any fundamental way about “protecting American lives.” The “war on terror,” and the torture that goes with it, is about terrorizing and crushing anyone—rebel, rival, or any other kind of force that stands in the way of Bush’s America über alles.
Torture has been central to the U.S.’s “war on terror.” In 2005, William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International, said that the U.S. government is operating an “‘archipelago’ of prisons around the world, many of them secret camps into which people are being ‘literally disappeared,’” Nobody knows how many people have been tortured to death - even at Abu Ghraib. One prison guard at Abu Ghraib wrote in her diary that prisoners were shot for minor misbehavior, and investigators have identified that many murdered prisoners at Abu Ghraib had their deaths classified as died “during sleep,” or of “natural reasons.” Iraqi doctors were not allowed to investigate deaths at Abu Ghraib even when death certificates were obviously forged. And after all this, the U.S. still admits that some 26 prisoners were killed at Abu Ghraib (“U.S. calls deaths of 26 prisoners homicides,” International Herald Tribune, March 16, 2005). Official U.S. Defense Department figures list 108 people who have died in U.S. custody since December 2002.
The U.S. has tortured people sold to them by corrupt warlords in Afghanistan. They have tortured people kidnapped off the streets of Europe. Their troops burst into people’s homes in Iraq, rape young women, and kill families. They have filled hell-hole prisons in Afghanistan with prisoners and left many to die. They have hidden people in secret jails in Eastern Europe, and nobody knows what has been done to those people. U.S. citizen Jose Padilla has been detained for years—subjected to high-tech psychological torture, and for most of that time he was held as a so-called “enemy combatant,” without a lawyer, legal rights, or charges. Bush’s former legal adviser, John Yoo, defended applying electrical shocks to the testicles of an innocent child of a suspect, and Bush’s Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, called international rules against torture “quaint.”
Among those detained in U.S. concentration camps—without trials, lawyers, or constraints on how they have been tortured—are an unknown number of people who have been held in secret CIA-run torture chambers. After denying the existence of these people, Bush admitted—actually bragged—in his speech on September 6, that he was sending 14 of them to the Guantanamo concentration camp/torture chamber.
A Dangerous Leap in Sanctioning Torture
All the horrors so far have been intolerable. But it is important to recognize that what Bush is proposing is a dramatic leap. Reflecting the degree of what is going on - from their perspective—an editorial in the New York Times (9/15/06) said, “The idea that the nation’s chief executive is pressing so hard to undermine basic standards of justice is shocking.” Along with being immoral, and in violation of international law, torture is supposed to be a violation of U.S. law. The War Crimes Act specifically says that violating Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions will be treated as a felony under U.S. law. This War Crimes Act was originally passed with no opposition in 1996 by a Republican-majority Congress. According to some accounts, the law was intended, at that time, largely as a propaganda gesture, to highlight a supposed contrast between U.S. values and rule of law and the increasingly targeted regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. It is ominous that now, a decade later, the White House, CIA, and Justice Department treat this same law as an intolerable constraint on their agents all over the world.
Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which Bush claims is too vague and confusing to mean anything, says in part (in respect to treatment of prisoners):
“To this end the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:
(a) Violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;
(b) Taking of hostages;
(c) Outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment;
(d) The passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.”
This spring, the Supreme Court (in Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld) ruled that the operations ordered by the White House (and specifically the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo) were violating Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions (which the U.S. signed). The court ruled that the White House could not, simply on its own executive authority, overrule existing U.S. laws and treaties in this way. But the Supreme Court also made clear that such treatment could be legal—if Bush did it with Congressional approval.
The “solution” Bush announced in his September 6 speech is to have the Congress rewrite the existing federal law (specifically the War Crimes Act), and officially invent a new interpretation of the Geneva Conventions that would legalize a whole range of torture techniques—all so that the U.S. torturers can operate their global torture network, and so that they would be authorized and legitimized, not just by “executive order,” but also by the vote of Congress.
Bush, in his September 6 speech, complained, “[S]ome believe our military and intelligence personnel involved in capturing and questioning terrorists could now be at risk of prosecution under the War Crimes Act—simply for doing their jobs in a thorough and professional way.”
This is not just about retroactively ensuring that torturers (and their Commander-in-Chief) are not prosecuted for war crimes. It is also about sending a message that “the gloves are off” the torturers.
What’s So Vague About Torture?
Bush says that Common Article 3 is confusing and vague. But who could say that the obscene, sadistic, depraved acts repeatedly and graphically documented at Abu Ghraib and encouraged by Bush’s Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, are not outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment?
Or, who could claim that what the U.S. has been doing in its torture chambers—bringing prisoners to the brink of drowning (through “waterboarding”), depriving prisoners of sleep using ear-splitting noise, exposing them to extreme temperatures, forcing them into agonizing “stress positions” for hours and even days, and various forms of crude beatings—who could say these acts are not outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment?
The horrific torture techniques revealed in the photographs from Abu Ghraib are just the tip of the iceberg. The use of essentially these same techniques has been further documented at Guantanamo Bay and Bagram Air base in Afghanistan by eyewitness accounts.
In one of many pro-torture speeches—this one on September 15—Bush said that “our professionals won’t be able to carry forward the program [of carrying out what he calls “alternative” interrogation methods - that is torture] because they don’t want to be tried as war criminals. They don’t want to break the law.” How can this be understood except that carrying out “the program” is breaking the law!
And so Bush’s proposed Military Commissions Act makes its changes to U.S. law apply “retroactively”—meaning that U.S. torturers (and those who gave them orders) could never be tried for what they did over the last years when these brutal torture techniques were clearly illegal under both U.S. and international law.
This Act would hand a “Get Out of Jail Free” card to U.S. torturers—and would flash an official green light for future torture, future U.S. war crimes and future changes in U.S. law.
Further, Bush’s law would mark a leap in placing the U.S. above any international constraints - and serve as a “hands off” message to any dissident European judge who might think about issuing a war crimes warrant for anyone in the administration itself. The current touchy situation, where Italy is investigating CIA agents for kidnapping a man for “rendition” (sending people to countries where they will be tortured) may be a factor in the timing of this bill. And Bush is sending a message to his torturers: Don’t worry about prosecution under U.S. law for what you are doing. As he said at a news conference on September 15, “What I am proposing is that there be clarity in the law so that our professionals will have no doubt that that which they are doing is legal.”
What’s Behind the Opposition to Bush’s Bill from Powerful Ruling Class Forces?
It is a chilling statement that Bush’s bill was rapidly approved by the Armed Services Committee of the House of Representatives—with 20 (of 28) Democratic representatives there voting for it. But his law ran into sharp opposition—in a way—in the U.S. Senate.
An alternate bill, proposed by three influential Republican senators with long-standing ties to the military high command—John Warner, Lindsey Graham, and John McCain—was adopted by the Senate Armed Services Committee. At this writing, these Senate leaders are facing off against Bush over competing bills. Two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell and John Vessey, endorsed the Senate Armed Services Committee bill. And Powell took the unusual step of speaking out publicly against his old boss. Powell wrote: “The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism. To redefine Common Article 3 would add to those doubts. Furthermore, it would put our own troops at risk.”
Colin Powell is expressing some serious concerns from sections of the U.S. rulers. Exactly what might lie behind all of these concerns is not fully clear at this moment, and may be related to on-going stresses and strains on the U.S. military that is stretched very thin in Iraq and facing the possibility of being sent into Iran. And in that context, it is interesting that Bush’s ruling class opponents are framing their objections in terms of being the most dedicated backers of “the troops” and the military. But there are concerns among those in power that Bush’s “go it alone—and fuck international law” approach is too dangerous, and that alienating “the world” right now is a real danger. They are concerned that whatever credibility Bush has for his “war on terror” is in danger. And there are real concerns among some in the military that throwing out all the rules of engagement might create conditions where U.S. troops are “at risk” in a world without rules of warfare.
When asked at a press conference about Powell’s statement, Bush replied, “It’s unacceptable to think that there’s any kind of comparison between the behavior of the United States of America and the action of Islamic extremists who kill innocent women and children to achieve an objective.”
Think through the logic here. Bush is saying that the U.S. can do anything—and by definition—it is OK. Because we did it, and we’re good, whereas if they do it, it’s bad because—they’re bad. And he was declaring at this press conference, with a very bullying tone and demeanor, that it is “unacceptable” to compare U.S. torture and murder (and yes, many have died in U.S. torture camps over the last five years) with that of the “Islamic extremists.”
But the Senate alternative is also a pro-torture law.
Georgetown Law School professor Marty Lederman, who analyzed the Senate bill on his blog site, wrote that the Senate bill “would also amend the War Crimes Act to provide effective legal cover for many of the CIA’s “alternative” techniques—including use of hypothermia, sleep deprivation and threats of violence against detainees and their families.” And Lederman wrote that both the Bush and Senate bills “[strip] the federal courts of jurisdiction to hear pending habeas cases brought by Guantánamo detainees. If enacted, these bills would authorize the life-long detention of more than 450 men who have been imprisoned in Guantánamo for nearly five years without ever having been charged with an offense or receiving a fair hearing. This is unconscionable.”
And commenting on the shredding of what have been accepted norms of trials for hundreds of years, the New York Times editorial (9/15/06) says, “Both bills draw the definition of ‘unlawful enemy combatant’ so broadly that it could cover almost anyone that a particular administration decides is a threat, remove him from the judicial system and subject him to a military trial.” Stop and think about that for a minute!
Meanwhile, the Democrats are off the charts in their complicity, standing completely aside and avoiding being associated with opposition to torture.
In short, the differences around this bill between McCain, Graham, Warner, and the forces they represent, and Bush and those around him are not that great. On the other hand, they are significant, coming as they do at a critical time when the terms of national debate are being framed through (not decided by, but framed through) the upcoming election. And coming at a time when there is real unease in sections of the U.S. military over the quagmire in Iraq, and the dangers to the whole U.S. empire involved in an attack on Iran. How significant this infighting at the top of the system turns out to be is not yet determined—as we go to press, Bush’s people are putting out word that a compromise will not be hard to reach. But the tension at the top of the power structure poses an opportunity and a critical challenge for a whole other agenda to come forward from the masses of people—one that rejects torture, fascist repression, and the whole Bush package.
And more fundamentally, to let Bush legalize torture, and implement fascist changes to the legal system, or to allow the terms of things to be restricted to Bush vs. McCain, is—to not mince words—to be complicit in the horrors that have been committed, and worse horrors to come. The challenge to bring this all to a HALT is concentrated very sharply, right now, in the need for massive numbers of people stepping forward on October 5th in protests called by World Can’t Wait.
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