Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Red Cross Report on Torture

If you haven’t read Mark Danner's lengthy piece for the New York Review of Books on the Red Cross report on the treatment of "high value" prisoners, do check it out. It's harrowing stuff. Alternatively, Dan Froomkin provides an excellent overview, and Danner discussed the piece on Democracy Now. (Funny that many major new organizations haven't given it that much coverage, and many politicians aren't mentioning it, either.)

I'll cover some of the highlights here, including Danner's summary:

Far and away the greatest damage, though, was legal, moral, and political. In the wake of the ICRC report one can make several definitive statements:

1. Beginning in the spring of 2002 the United States government began to torture prisoners. This torture, approved by the President of the United States and monitored in its daily unfolding by senior officials, including the nation's highest law enforcement officer, clearly violated major treaty obligations of the United States, including the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture, as well as US law.

2. The most senior officers of the US government, President George W. Bush first among them, repeatedly and explicitly lied about this, both in reports to international institutions and directly to the public. The President lied about it in news conferences, interviews, and, most explicitly, in speeches expressly intended to set out the administration's policy on interrogation before the people who had elected him.

3. The US Congress, already in possession of a great deal of information about the torture conducted by the administration—which had been covered widely in the press, and had been briefed, at least in part, from the outset to a select few of its members—passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 and in so doing attempted to protect those responsible from criminal penalty under the War Crimes Act.

4. Democrats, who could have filibustered the bill, declined to do so—a decision that had much to do with the proximity of the midterm elections, in the run-up to which, they feared, the President and his Republican allies might gain advantage by accusing them of "coddling terrorists." One senator summarized the politics of the Military Commissions Act with admirable forthrightness:

Soon, we will adjourn for the fall, and the campaigning will begin in earnest. And there will be 30-second attack ads and negative mail pieces, and we will be criticized as caring more about the rights of terrorists than the protection of Americans. And I know that the vote before us was specifically designed and timed to add more fuel to that fire.

Senator Barack Obama was only saying aloud what every other legislator knew: that for all the horrified and gruesome exposés, for all the leaked photographs and documents and horrific testimony, when it came to torture in the September 11 era, the raw politics cut in the other direction. Most politicians remain convinced that still fearful Americans—given the choice between the image of 24 's Jack Bauer, a latter-day Dirty Harry, fantasy symbol of untrammeled power doing "everything it takes" to protect them from that ticking bomb, and the image of weak liberals "reading Miranda rights to terrorists"—will choose Bauer every time. As Senator Obama said, after the bill he voted against had passed, "politics won today."

5. The political damage to the United States' reputation, and to the "soft power" of its constitutional and democratic ideals, has been, though difficult to quantify, vast and enduring. In a war that is essentially an insurgency fought on a worldwide scale—which is to say, a political war, in which the attitudes and allegiances of young Muslims are the critical target of opportunity—the United States' decision to use torture has resulted in an enormous self-administered defeat, undermining liberal sympathizers of the United States and convincing others that the country is exactly as its enemies paint it: a ruthless imperial power determined to suppress and abuse Muslims. By choosing to torture, we freely chose to become the caricature they made of us.

Danner's conclusion on Democracy Now is also a good summing up:

Well, I think that there are a number of things you can say about torture. The first thing is that it’s illegal, very illegal, under international and domestic law. The second thing you can say is that it’s politically damaging, enormously damaging, particularly in a war, the so-called war on terror, which is a political war. It’s essentially a worldwide counterinsurgency in which you are trying to persuade young Muslims, first of all, not to support al-Qaeda, not to join al-Qaeda, not to support a war, an insurgency, against the United States. So it’s politically damaging and illegal. These things are a matter of record. Third, it makes justice impossible. You end up with a bunch of prisoners in Guantanamo who, because they’ve been tortured, cannot be prosecuted.

ThinkProgress posted some of Danner's C-Span appearance, where he expressed the frustration of many who'd like to see justice done:

One passage in particular stuck out to me:

DANNER: I think the definitional question is extremely important, and as I mentioned a moment ago, I think it’s extremely important to get by it already. We’re debilitated in that by some degree by the practices of the American press, frankly, which is that as long as the president or people in power continue to cling to a definition that they assert is the truth — as President Bush did when it came to torture, he said repeatedly the United States does not torture — the press feels obliged to report that and consider the matter as a question of debate.

This journalistic gutlessness is maddening, and part of the problem we examined in "Rivkin's Protean Logic on Torture" (and more generally in two earlier posts).

When Cheney was interviewed recently by CNN suckup John King, Cheney's attacks on Obama and defense of his own conduct were both unsurprising and shameless. So were several media reactions. The post on Rivkin included the line, "investigating the Bush administration will be all the more difficult given a Beltway class that views calling someone a war criminal as a far worse sin than actually committing war crimes." Obama obviously didn't go that far, and King never would, but sure enough, several Beltway journalists were more scandalized by Obama's press secretary pushing back against Cheney than they were by the former vice president probably being guilty of war crimes. They also weren't terribly concerned about John King not pressing Cheney on any of his highly questionable claims or his legal jeopardy. DDay, Glenn Greenwald and DougJ at Balloon Juice have more on this, and as DougJ observes, "Dick Cheney still has higher status in the Village than Barack Obama. It’s that simple." It sometimes truly astounds me how shallow and venal our press corps is.

The Obama administration is releasing some more Bush era torture memos, and this is good, but much more needs to be done. As Scott Horton spells out in "Dereliction of Duty," Attorney General Eric Holder should be following the law and opening a criminal investigation.

Dan Froomkin has more in his roundup on "The Cheney Reaction." Andrew Malcolm glossing over Cheney's crimes and chiding Obama for responding to Cheney in "detail" proves once again that Malcolm is an ass and a hack. Meanwhile, Cheney's fellow Republicans are not happy with him running about, drawing attention to Bush administration misdeeds. Froomkin also links Scott Horton, who observes::

Sunday evening, President Obama responded in some detail to Dick Cheney’s claims that the security of all Americans depends upon imprisoning innocent people in depraved conditions outside of the rule of law. As Professor Jonathan Turley notes, the curious thing about Obama’s response is that it is so mild. Cheney’s statements are tantamount to an admission of his involvement in a serious criminal conspiracy. Moreover, Cheney actually brags about his criminality—he insists that he’s doing it because it’s good for us. When prosecutors decide which cases to charge, one concern is whether the crime has been committed in an open and notorious way. Cheney’s conduct on this score is off the charts. As Turley says, “This is the best defined and most public crime I’ve seen in my lifetime.” Cheney is effectively building the case for his own criminal prosecution. It needs to happen, preferably before another coronary incident robs us of the opportunity to bring a serious criminal to justice.

Horton posts the video of Turley on Rachel Maddow's show, and Turley offers a great overview of the legal issues here, the stakes for our country if justice is ignored, the radical nature of the Bush administration's crimes, and the Obama administration's reluctance to push ahead:

It's essential that the Obama administration continues to be pressured on seeing that justice is done.

(Bonus Scott Horton: "Lie About How We Treated You and You Can Go Free." That one hasn't changed.)

(Cross-posted at Blue Herald)


Mark Prime (tpm/Confession Zero) said...

(Funny that many major new organizations haven't given it that much coverage, and many politicians aren't mentioning it, either.)

I was going to respond to the above quote, but I realized that you were being factitious so I won't...


Mark Prime (tpm/Confession Zero) said...

No. You weren't being factitious, per se, you were being "ironic"...