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December 19, 2005

Bush's Underwhelming Gesture on Torture

by Ray McGovern

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 due diligence."

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.

Other Fallout

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.


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Ray McGovern's Bio

Ray McGovern was a CIA analyst for 27 years – from the John F. Kennedy administration to that of George H. W. Bush.

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