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torture is not a partisan issue

torture is not a partisan issue

Torture is not a partisan issue. It is an issue of conscience. It’s not about citing extreme circumstances, but about applying a universal standard of human ethics. It’s not about finding ways to win the war on terrorism, but about not losing our souls in the process.

Torture is not a partisan issue. Consider the comments of Lindsey Graham, Republican senator from South Carolina, during the confirmation hearing for Michael Mukasey:

If we allow our executive in certain rare circumstances to use techniques like waterboarding, then what do we say when a downed airman is in the hands of another enemy in another war, and they argue, “Well, I had to do this, because I needed to know when the next air attack was going to occur.”

The NPR story containing this quote from Sen. Graham also supplies some background on “waterboarding.”

Waterboarding is a process of controlled drowning used in the Spanish Inquisition … For more than a century, it has been considered a war crime by the United States and prosecuted as such. The top legal officers of all the military services have testified that waterboarding is illegal under U.S. and international law.

If we have called it torture for more than a century and if our legal experts in the military still call it torture, then isn’t is torture? And if we say we don’t torture, why can’t we say that we categorically reject waterboarding as aid to interrogation? Because we don’t want to let detainees know what is or is not in our interrogation arsenal? Because we want them and the rest of the world to think we might indeed use torture?

Torture is not a partisan issue. It is an issue of conscience … of personal conscience and of national conscience.

ten steps

ten steps

Worth checking out: Ten Steps to Restore the United States’ Moral Authority: A Common Sense Agenda for the 110th Congress

This document posted on the Human Rights Watch website provides a good summary of the ways the conduct of the war on terrorism has undermined the consistent application by the United States of basic principles of human rights and suggests a specific agenda for restoring our moral compass. Signatories include Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights, the Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ, and close to twenty other religious and human rights organizations.

ny times on torture compromise: a bad bargain

ny times on torture compromise: a bad bargain

It is the rule of law that protects citizens and nations from tyranny. When we agree together to adhere to a law that binds both of us/all of us then we have a standard to which both of us/all of us are held accountable, and a means to address grievances with each other. When one party holds itself above the law or redefines the law unilaterally, then there is no longer any common standard and no means of holding anyone accountable. It simply becomes a matter of who is bigger, who is stronger, who can impose their will on the other. In other words, we have opened the doors to tyranny.

That is the danger in the present adminstration’s attempts to rewrite/redefine/circumvent the common standards for treatment of detainees outlined in the Geneva Conventions. If we can convict prisoners on the basis of undisclosed evidence, if we can indefinitely detain people we deem a threat, if we can use “extraordinary” means of interrogation when we have determined the threat warrants it, then anybody can. There is no rule of law, no common standard, no mutual accountability. Even if we may be safer — which itself is a highly debatable proposition — we will certainly be sorrier.

Read the New York Times editorial addressing the compromise reached between the present administration and the Republican senators who took issue with its proposed rules for detention and interrogation.

Published: September 22, 2006

Here is a way to measure how seriously President Bush was willing to compromise on the military tribunals bill: Less than an hour after an agreement was announced yesterday with three leading Republican senators, the White House was already laying a path to wiggle out of its one real concession.

About the only thing that Senators John Warner, John McCain and Lindsey Graham had to show for their defiance was Mr. Bush’s agreement to drop his insistence on allowing prosecutors of suspected terrorists to introduce classified evidence kept secret from the defendant. The White House agreed to abide by the rules of courts-martial, which bar secret evidence. (Although the administration’s supporters continually claim this means giving classified information to terrorists, the rules actually provide for reviewing, editing and summarizing classified material. Evidence that cannot be safely declassified cannot be introduced.)

This is a critical point. As Senator Graham keeps noting, the United States would never stand for any other country’s convicting an American citizen with undisclosed, secret evidence. So it seemed like a significant concession — until Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, briefed reporters yesterday evening. He said that while the White House wants to honor this deal, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Duncan Hunter, still wants to permit secret evidence and should certainly have his say. To accept this spin requires believing that Mr. Hunter, who railroaded Mr. Bush’s original bill through his committee, is going to take any action not blessed by the White House.

On other issues, the three rebel senators achieved only modest improvements on the White House’s original positions. They wanted to bar evidence obtained through coercion. Now, they have agreed to allow it if a judge finds it reliable (which coerced evidence hardly can be) and relevant to guilt or innocence. The way coercion is measured in the bill, even those protections would not apply to the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay.

The deal does next to nothing to stop the president from reinterpreting the Geneva Conventions. While the White House agreed to a list of “grave breaches” of the conventions that could be prosecuted as war crimes, it stipulated that the president could decide on his own what actions might be a lesser breach of the Geneva Conventions and what interrogation techniques he considered permissible. It’s not clear how much the public will ultimately learn about those decisions. They will be contained in an executive order that is supposed to be made public, but Mr. Hadley reiterated that specific interrogation techniques will remain secret.

Even before the compromises began to emerge, the overall bill prepared by the three senators had fatal flaws. It allows the president to declare any foreigner, anywhere, an “illegal enemy combatant” using a dangerously broad definition, and detain him without any trial. It not only fails to deal with the fact that many of the Guantánamo detainees are not terrorists and will never be charged, but it also chokes off any judicial review.

The Democrats have largely stood silent and allowed the trio of Republicans to do the lifting. It’s time for them to either try to fix this bill or delay it until after the election. The American people expect their leaders to clean up this mess without endangering U.S. troops, eviscerating American standards of justice, or further harming the nation’s severely damaged reputation.

more debate over interrogation guidelines

more debate over interrogation guidelines

From the Boston Globe, September 18, 2006:

In the fight over rules for the interrogation and trials of terrorism suspects, there is a split — not so much between Republicans and Democrats or the White House and the Senate, but between leaders like President Bush with no combat experience and those like Colin Powell who know combat and want to maintain the Geneva Conventions as a protection for US troops. Powell prefers the bill before Congress sponsored by Republican Senators John McCain, John Warner, and Lindsey Graham, all of whom have considerable military experience. Their bill, which the Senate Armed Services Committee approved Thursday, has deep flaws of its own, but it is a better basis for legislation than Bush’s proposal to gut the Geneva Conventions.

The military has to take the long view because it knows that if the United States strays from the Geneva Conventions, other countries will, too. As McCain said yesterday on ABC-TV, “We are more exposed than any other nationality because we have more people all over the world.” The military also knows that harsh interrogations often yield false information from prisoners eager to say anything to win better treatment. One terrorism suspect, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, “confessed” knowledge of links between Al Qaeda and Iraq after the Central Intelligence Agency handed him over to Egyptian authorities. According to the recently released Senate report on prewar intelligence, Libi had made up the information to avoid cruel treatment by the Egyptians.

Neither Bush’s bill nor the Senate committee’s deserves passage as written. Each would strip the 400 or more detainees at Guantanamo of any right to appeal their cases to federal courts. Except for a handful of them, none has been charged with war crimes or terrorism. Some undoubtedly would present a threat if released and should be held longer, but others were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. All of them deserve recourse to courts to challenge their continued detention.

At his press conference Friday, Bush challenged Powell’s statement that Bush’s redefinition of the Geneva Conventions would encourage the world to “doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism.” Bush construed this to suggest a comparison between US behavior and that of “Islamic extremists who kill innocent women and children to achieve an objective.” The proper comparison, though, is not with the conduct of terrorists but with the principles the United States has maintained in every war it has fought since adoption of the Geneva Conventions.

Those are the principles the Supreme Court upheld in June. Congress should follow suit by passing an amended version of the Senate committee bill that does not subject detainees to the limbo of Guantanamo with no access to the courts.

new interrogation guidelines

new interrogation guidelines

Yesterday the Pentagon released a set of revised guidelines for the interrogation of all detainees. It amounts to a formal acknowledgement that in the “war on terror” we have sometimes overstepped the boundaries of decency and humanity, and have not provided our field operatives a clear sense of what where those boundaries are.

This is a step in the right direction, a reaffirmation of our historic commitment to the rule of law and to the basic rights of all human beings. It’s about doing it right, not just about winning.

However, there are still gaping loopholes. The rules only cover Department of Defense officials on Department of Defense property. There are no prohibitions of secret detention facilities (indeed President Bush affirmed that such secret prisons will continue to be used), no legal oversight for these “unofficial” detention centers, and nothing to prevent government officials from transferring detainees to and from such facilities.

For more on the new guidelines, see the article by Josh White in the Washington Post: New Rules of Interrogation Forbid Use of Harsh Tactics

with liberty and justice for all

with liberty and justice for all

From the Los Angeles Times, June 5, 2006:

The Pentagon has decided to omit from new detainee policies a key tenet of the Geneva Convention that explicitly bans “humiliating and degrading treatment,” according to knowledgeable military officials, a step that would mark a further, potentially permanent, shift away from strict adherence to international human rights standards.

The decision could culminate a lengthy debate within the Defense Department but will not become final until the Pentagon makes new guidelines public, a step that has been delayed. However, the State Department fiercely opposes the military’s decision to exclude Geneva Convention protections and has been pushing for the Pentagon and White House to reconsider, the Defense Department officials acknowledged.

For more than a year, the Pentagon has been redrawing its policies on detainees, and intends to issue a new Army Field Manual on interrogation, which, along with accompanying directives, represents core instructions to U.S. soldiers worldwide.

The process has been beset by debate and controversy, and the decision to omit Geneva protections from a principal directive comes at a time of growing worldwide criticism of U.S. detention practices and the conduct of American forces in Iraq.

The directive on interrogation, a senior defense official said, is being rewritten to create safeguards so that all detainees are treated humanely but can still be questioned effectively.

President Bush’s critics and supporters have debated whether it is possible to prove a direct link between administration declarations that it will not be bound by Geneva and events such as the abuses at Abu Ghraib or the killings of Iraqi civilians last year in Haditha, allegedly by Marines.

But the exclusion of the Geneva provisions may make it more difficult for the administration to portray such incidents as aberrations. And it undercuts contentions that U.S. forces follow the strictest, most broadly accepted standards when fighting wars.

“The rest of the world is completely convinced that we are busy torturing people,” said Oona A. Hathaway, an expert in international law at Yale Law School. “Whether that is true or not, the fact we keep refusing to provide these protections in our formal directives puts a lot of fuel on the fire.”

The State Department has it right. How can we protect and defend our ideals … while casting aside our ideals? How do we defend liberty by restricting liberty? How do we defend justice by ignoring internationally accepted standards of justice? How do we advocate for human rights while picking and choosing which people have rights and which do not?

we must not look the other way

we must not look the other way

Amnesty International has just filed a report citing the ongoing use of interrogation tactics by the government of the United States that would be labeled “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” under any reasonable definition.

“Although the US government continues to assert its condemnation of torture and ill-treatment, these statements contradict what is happening in practice,” said Curt Goering, Senior Deputy Executive Director Of Amnesty International USA. “The US government is not only failing to take steps to eradicate torture it is actually creating a climate in which torture and other ill-treatment can flourish — including by trying to narrow the definition of torture …

“The heaviest sentence imposed on anyone to date for a torture-related death while in US custody is five months — the same sentence that you might receive in the US for stealing a bicycle. In this case, the five-month sentence was for assaulting a 22-year-old taxi-driver who was hooded and chained to a ceiling while being kicked and beaten until he died.”

We must enforce the laws which define us as a law-abiding state. We must enforce the recently-enacted ban on torture by any agent of the US government, anytime, anywhere. We must not look the other way! We must not place blind and unquestioning trust in our leaders, empowering them to do whatever they have to do to keep us safe. We cannot defeat terrorism by terrorism.

We must not look the other way, and we must not be silent.

saying “no” to torture means “no”

saying “no” to torture means “no”

I am hopeful that we may be of one mind as a nation in saying an unequivocal “No” to using torture in any and all circumstances. I am concerned, as are the retired miltary officers cited in the following article, that the “signing statement” appended to the bill undermines the intent and effect of the McCain amendment banning cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of detainees in any form.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A group of retired military officers urged President George W. Bush on Thursday to spell out how he will enforce a ban on the torture of U.S.-held prisoners, complaining he muddied the issue in a statement last month.

Bush reluctantly accepted the ban, pushed by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, after scandals over abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, harsh interrogations at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and reports the CIA ran secret prisons abroad to hold terrorism suspects.

Retired military leaders including Marine Gen. Joseph Hoar, who was U.S. Central Command commander-in-chief, said Bush should clarify his stance after making a statement last month that some experts said signaled he would bypass rules for treatment of detainees when he saw fit, even after he signed them into law.

The 22 former military officers in their letter said Bush should ensure that “your administration speak with a consistent voice to make clear that the United States now has a single standard of conduct specified in law that governs all interrogations.”

In a telephone news conference, Hoar said Bush’s statement last month “diluted the impact of the McCain amendment” by indicating “that there were going to be exceptions and the president has the ability to do that.”

McCain, who endured torture as a war prisoner in Vietnam, spearheaded the bill to set standards for detainees’ treatment that won big majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives.

Bush’s statement, issued on a Friday evening after he signed the bill putting the amendment into law, said the “executive branch shall construe (the law) in a manner consistent with the authority of the president … as commander in chief.”

The statement also said the White House’s approach would be “consistent with the constitutional limitations on the judicial power, which will assist in achieving the shared objective of the Congress and the president … of protecting the American people from further terrorist attacks.”

Elisa Massimino, Washington director of Human Rights First, said Bush should “clarify the signing statement so there is no question that the commander-in-chief considers this law binding on all U.S. personnel.”

Human Rights First held a news conference on the letter from retired generals and admirals.

Retired Rear Admiral John Hutson, a former Navy judge advocate general, said the McCain amendment reinstated long-standing U.S. policy on the treatment of prisoners. “Then to have a signing statement in which that becomes blurred again causes us great concern,” he said.

By Vicki Allen

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