Don't believe what you've heard in our domesticated
media; the much-ballyhooed White House compromise with Sen. John McCain on torture
is largely smoke and mirrors.
The focus has now shifted to a fresh outrage, as President George W. Bush attempts
to defend the deliberate flouting of U.S. laws regulating eavesdropping on American
citizens – as well the focus should, since this involves an impeachable offense.
Still, it would not be right to leave standing the impression fostered by the
administration and its embedded pundits that the agreement with McCain means
the end of torture by U.S. interrogators. It does not mean that at all.
In deciding not to follow through on his threat to veto Sen. John McCain's
amendment against torture, Bush actually surrendered very little. Torture is
still in the eye of beholders in the defense and intelligence communities.
The unseemly spectacle of Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W.
Bush openly opposing the McCain amendment banning torture for a torturous five
months has done irreparable harm to America's standing abroad. The damage will
not be attenuated by the president's reluctant acquiescence to the McCain amendment.
The most that can be said is that the harm would have been still greater if
McCain caved in to Cheney's obtuse opposition, or if Bush had chosen to veto
must-pass defense legislation in order to defeat the amendment.
The Bush-McCain compromise changes very little. The interrogation practices
banned are limited to those not authorized by the United States Army Field Manual
on Intelligence Interrogation, which can be – is being – revised. The New York
Times reported on Wednesday that the Army has approved a 10-page secret
addendum to the Army field manual, a move that one Pentagon official described
as "a stick in McCain's eye." McCain's chief of staff minced no words in describing
the move as "politically obtuse" and undertaken without "one molecule of political
The new manual, to be issued this month, spells out authorized interrogation
techniques, but these remain classified. Having faced down Cheney, it will be
interesting to see if McCain's courage extends to facing down Defense Secretary
Rumsfeld's transparent attempt to vitiate the amendment. Or will McCain and
his congressional colleagues settle for a Potemkin-village-type victory, and
leave the field for the clever lawyers around Cheney and Rumsfeld? The pleasant
noises that McCain was making yesterday and the typically premature comments
of eager-to-please Jane Harmon, vice-chair of the House Intelligence Committee,
suggest that, in the end, most legislators will settle for Potemkin.
The Crux… and the Crooks
One Army officer involved bemoaned the fact that
confusion persists because of a lack of clarity on what constitutes torture.
"'Cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment' is at the crux of the problem," he
said, "but we've never defined that."
The section of the McCain amendment applying to CIA and other civilian interrogators
also hinges on what qualifies as cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, but
the amendment's attempt to define it by referring to provisions in the U.S.
Constitution and the UN convention against torture leaves ample room for ambiguity
and widely differing interpretation.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Thursday that the dispute between the
White House and McCain was over "what constitutes cruel, inhumane, and degrading
treatment" and, resorting to reductio ad absurdum, pointed out, "In some
countries … those words mean you can't even insult someone when you question
them." Appearing on CNN, Gonzales added:
"Congress has defined what torture is, and it is intentional infliction
of severe – I emphasize the word severe – intentional infliction of severe
physical or mental pain or suffering."
Gonzales would not say whether this definition would include waterboarding.
Those watching CNN will not have much reason to believe that anything has changed.
National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley has indicated that his negotiations
with McCain centered on providing legal protection for interrogators. McCain
had said earlier that granting such protection would undermine his amendment,
but under the compromise with the White House, CIA officers and other civilians
accused of abuse in interrogation would be able to argue that they believed
they were obeying a legal order and would have the right to government counsel.
In practice, this will make it very difficult to hold anyone accountable in
U.S. courts. A prosecutor probably would have to prove that a higher-up's orders
were so unreasonable that they fit the category of Nazi atrocities.
No effort has been made to disguise what lies behind the administration's position.
Even Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a lawyer who has been considered a moderate
on the issue of torture, has conceded that the "problem" is to find a way to
protect interrogators who go too far. Perhaps it is my lack of legal training,
but I do not think one can square this circle. There remains too much of a disconnect,
for example, between the "we-do-not-torture" rhetoric and Gonzales' refusal
to rule out waterboarding.
Dick Cheney, dubbed "Vice President for Torture"
by the New York Times, has been dealt a resolute rebuff. His open advocacy
of torture, coming on the heels of the indictment of his chief of staff I. Lewis
Libby, has put a huge chink in his armor. Friday's revelations that he played
a key role in the latest scandal, the use of the National Security Agency for
warrantless eavesdropping on U.S. citizens, could be strike three. Despite the
president's protestations that the two have never been closer, Bush may soon
be forced to put considerable distance between him and the éminence grise.
~ The imperial presidency, too, has been struck a blow – not fatal yet, but damaging
nonetheless, and creating further vulnerability. Congress has summoned the courage
to face Cheney and the president down, at least overtly, and this chips away
at the image of invulnerability carefully cultivated by the administration.
Congresspeople and Senators seem newly aware that their oath is to the Constitution,
not to the White House, and this can spell big trouble for Bush in the months
ahead, as indignity piles upon indignity.
~ The press is slowly beginning to act like a responsible fourth estate. True,
the New York Times sat on the NSA story for a whole year, but it was
published before the final vote on the so-called PATRIOT Act – and, by all accounts,
had considerable impact.
~ After two years of feeling intimidated by the administration's retaliation
against Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife Valerie, patriots within the national
security agencies are showing a new willingness to assume the risks attendant
to revealing crimes and other abuses to the press. The phrase "according to
current and former intelligence officials" has become familiar attribution in
major whistle-blowing stories.
~ The George W. Bush White House is no longer the well-honed machine it once
was. Clearly, Karl Rove and Dick Cheney are preoccupied with their legal problems.
Without their savvy advice, the president has been left to his own devices,
as can be seen in his:
- Callous refusal to meet with Cindy Sheehan in August and defuse her challenge;
- Ill-considered identification with Cheney's fascination with torture;
- Recent off-the-cuff estimate of Iraqi casualties;
- Gratuitous praise for Donald Rumsfeld for doing "a heck of a job" (like
the late Michael Brown of FEMA?);
- Increasingly desperate attempts to convince Americans that "the CIA made
me do the war;"
- Four (soon to be five) tiresome, stay-the-course speeches on Iraq – full
of sound and fury, signifying nothing but a lack of adult supervision these
days at the White House.
Worse still from the administration's point of view, there is little prospect
that things are likely to improve anytime soon. Congress is up in arms over
the president's disdain for laws regulating government eavesdropping, and the
president is left with the same second-string legal help responsible for encouraging
him to believe he is above the law in the first place. Karl Rove is in legal
limbo, and may soon be feeling the heat of purgatory, so to speak. Last, but
hardly least, the upcoming trial of Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis
Libby, will do nothing to lessen the contempt in which a growing number of Americans
hold the vice president and their wonderment at Bush's repeated praise of him.
In other words, things are likely to get still more dicey for the president
and his closest associates – and soon.
The original version of this article appeared on Truthout.com.