a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Rogue nation ’tis of thee, land of impunity

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 12th November 2010

In new memoir, Bush makes clear he approved use of waterboarding (R. Jeffrey Smith, WaPo, 11/3):

In his book, titled “Decision Points,” Bush recounts being asked by the CIA whether it could proceed with waterboarding Mohammed, who Bush said was suspected of knowing about still-pending terrorist plots against the United States. Bush writes that his reply was “Damn right” and states that he would make the same decision again to save lives, according to a someone close to Bush who has read the book.

After headlining this story “But you know, what the hell” on Facebook, I got into an online discussion with a friend about it a couple of days later; his take was not quite a shrug, but something like it — more or less “nothing new here.”  To be clear: he didn’t approve of the torture at all, he just didn’t see what was newsworthy about the story.  And indeed, the Post story continued:

Bush previously had acknowledged endorsing what he described as the CIA’s “enhanced” interrogation techniques – a term meant to encompass irregular, coercive methods – after Justice Department officials and other top aides assured him they were legal. “I was a big supporter of waterboarding,” Vice President Richard B. Cheney acknowledged in a television interview in February.

My friend argued that for either Bush or Obama, “Expecting public self-critical analysis from these folks is like expecting Hulk Hogan to admit that pro wrestling is rigged.” I replied:

You mistake my point, which I expressed too obliquely. My point is “simply” that we appear to have Bush’s confession that he broke laws and international obligations against torture. His blustery confidence that he was right to do so is irrelevant; the point is that he confessed to doing so. Were this a country with a functioning legal system, this would prompt prosecutors to begin legal action.

My brevity was intended to convey: this is how to commit a crime and get away with it. First, commit the crime. Then, hide it as long as possible. Then, deny it was a crime. Then, deny what you did fit the definition of the crime. (“We do not torture,” he said repeatedly.)  Always, blur responsibility so that it was perhaps ‘bad apples’ who freelanced the crime. Then persuade your successor to take part in the coverup. Then write a book about it.  [...]

Bush’s contrition isn’t the issue to me, I couldn’t care less about that. Our betrayal of ourselves is.

My friend made the reasonable point that if the public can’t be bothered with Bush’s lies to get us into a war, the chances of its getting bothered about torture are even less.  Maybe so.  Yet while there is perhaps some question about a head of state of a sovereign nation tilting that nation to war, there are actual, specific statutes and treaty obligations against torture, and specific means to see that failing to meet those obligations is punished.  Somehow, torture seems so specific and wrong to me that it seems harder to evade responsibility. Though this war was not, war might sometimes be justified; torture can never be. At any rate, in his Nation article George W. Bush: Torturer-in-Chief, Georgetown law professor David Cole points out:

…Bush and Cheney are not immune. In fact, the United States is legally obligated by the Convention Against Torture, a treaty we helped draft, and have signed and ratified, to investigate any credible allegations of torture by a person within US jurisdiction. And if the United States does not take action, other nations are authorized to do so, under the principle of “universal jurisdiction,” which treats torture as so heinous that its perpetrators can be investigated and prosecuted by any country if their own country fails to take corrective action. [...]

…the principle of universal jurisdiction, combined with our government’s failure to take any steps toward accountability, means that Bush and Cheney can be investigated and prosecuted anywhere in the world. They may feel confident that President Obama will not have the temerity to hold them accountable, but it’s not clear they should be confident about the rest of the world. Two investigations of US complicity in torture are already pending in Spain, where Pinochet was initially investigated. And Poland has recently opened a criminal investigation of torture at a CIA “black site” there. Bush and Cheney may want to limit their vacations to the homeland for the foreseeable future.

To join my friend in realism — whether as a means of triaging doomed expectations or not, whether disillusioned or not — I don’t suppose that much will come of this, either. I don’t really expect Spain or Poland to indict Bush or Cheney, though I’d frankly cheer if they did; I imagine they’ll back down if confronted, though I’d support them not doing so.

It seems like all those of us appalled by all of this can say is ‘shame.’ But maybe that isn’t just a matter of scolding or blushing; maybe shame means more than mere emotional discomfort. For starters, we obviously undo the reciprocal expectation that American soldiers can expect not to be mistreated by their captors.  But there are other results, less tangible, but maybe more influential.

Even if there aren’t formal consequences for systematic, high level US approval of torture (and failure to punish that), there will be informal, but powerful ones.  Public opinion around the world — among even our closer allies — is not going to be very teary-eyed about the accelerating loss of US prestige/dominance in the world.  That loss mainly has to do with economic decline — but we’ll have simultaneously, and I’m afraid rightly, lost respect and friendship as well. We’ll just be the crazy, nasty Uncle Sam in the attic, a near-rogue nation if not a full-fledged one.

That image will be all too well founded, and that will matter. As we get used to torture by the US, we will need to get used to its consequences as well.

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Elect to End Torture 2010: congressional scorecards

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 29th October 2010

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) Action Fund has produced detailed Congressional vote scorecards of House and Senate incumbents’ “actions on major pieces of torture-related legislation in the 109th, 110th, and 111th Congresses,” from 2005 to 2010:

You can tell people how their vote will make a difference by writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper that either thanks your incumbent Representative or Senator for his or her good votes to end torture – or takes him or her to task for failing to vote against torture. Get involved today – we’ve got suggestions and sample letters available.

I’ve reformatted the data to an online spreadsheet, visible to the right.  NRCAT compiled House votes on the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA), the Military Commissions Act (MCA), and bills about habeas corpus, Army Field Manual “golden rule” in interrogation, videotaping interrogations, and closing Guantanamo, as well as the House attempt to override Bush’s veto of the “golden rule” bill.

For the Senate, NRCAT also reviewed DTA, MCA, habeas corpus, and Guantanamo closure votes, as well as the Mukasey confirmation vote and a vote on establishing a commission to examine detainee treatment abuses.  Scores were computed as the sum of equally weighted positive votes to end torture and negative votes to tolerate it, divided by the greatest possible score for the Congressperson or Senator, expressed as a percentage.

Goal Thermometer
Support these progressives:
Feingold, Sestak, Grayson,
Kilroy, Murphy, Clark, Lentz,
Trivedi, Pingree, Grijalva,

Naturally, I was interested in how “newsrack actblue” candidates or their opponents voted — and I’m very pleased to report that every single incumbent we’re supporting got a NRCAT score of 100. Moreover, two challengers — Tarryl Clark and Manan Trivedi — face Republican incumbents with extremely poor scores: Michele Bachmann (10) and Jim Gerlach (14) respectively.

NRCAT has also published questionnaire responses for selected Senate and House races. One of the Senate races was Wisconsin’s — and while Russ Feingold agreed with the NRCAT position on every count, Ron Johnson stayed true to form by… refusing to answer the questionnaire.

While it’s true that candidates have probably completed buying the air time they can purchase before the election, a Feingold staffer has emailed me that his campaign can still use funds to mount the best possible “get out the vote” (GOTV) drive they can. So if you haven’t donated, there’s still time, and now it’s even clearer that we’re supporting some outstanding candidates.

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Do-it-yourself torture accountability

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 19th March 2010

On Tuesday evening I listened to a panel sponsored by the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (BORDC) titled “Understanding U.S. Torture and Executive Accountability,” and hosted by the Institute for Policy Studies.

The panelists

Shahid Buttar, BORDC; Jesselyn Radack, former
Department of Justice ethics attorney; Matthew
Alexander, former U.S Army interrogator.
Originally uploaded by Thomas Nephew

I knew the panelists — Shahid Buttar, Matthew Alexander, and Jesselyn Radack — would be interesting, having read about them or read their own writing as I’ve followed these issues.  But what also interested me was one short sentence at the end of the e-mail:“The speakers will present concrete action opportunities to promote torture accountability, with a discussion to follow.”

Here is what they said.

“File bar complaints” – Jesselyn Radack
Jesselyn Radack, a former Department of Justice ethics attorney, blew the whistle on Department of Justice efforts to conceal her objections and counsel concerning the improper use of evidence gained in interrogations of “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh — and has paid for it with a long legal battle and placement on the no-fly list.*

Scott Horton’s recent Harper’s Magazine interview with her,  Justice’s Vendetta Against a Whistleblower: Six Questions for Jesselyn Radack, is a useful starting point for catching up with the story. As Radack points out there, her experience couldn’t be a starker contrast with that of Yoo and Bybee’s clean getaway from accountability for real wrongdoing:“I am now the only Justice Department attorney that OPR referred for bar disciplinary action stemming from advice I gave in a terrorism case–and my advice was to permit an American terrorism suspect to have counsel.”

Noting that “you don’t have to be a lawyer to file a bar complaint,” Ms. Radack hoped that would happen to John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and other lawyers implicated in authorizing torture. She clarified a question I had by saying you don’t have to live in the state where, say, John Yoo is admitted to the bar (Pennsylvania, as it happens), to lodge a complaint with that state bar association.

“Practice tolerance” – Matthew Alexander
Matthew Alexander, a former Army interrogator, has written a number of articles and editorials over the past few years rebutting claims that torture is necessary or effective.  One of the latest ones I’m aware of is a devastating review in Slate of former Bush staffer and current torture apologist Marc Thiessen’s ironically titled book “Courting Disaster.”  One of the first was a 2008 op-ed for the Washington Post, “I’m Still Tortured by What I Saw in Iraq.”**
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