Sunday, August 06, 2006

Forests, Trees, and Bad Apples

The media and the judiciary have had a hell of a time connecting high-level executive policy with detainee abuse in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo, despite the fact that a majority of Americans believe the U.S. tortures or abuses detainees as a matter of policy.

How, then, do we hold Rumsfeld and the White House accountable for their share of the responsibility for abuse, torture, and, in some cases, manslaughter?

A good start might be Slate, where one can find an excellent collection of White House and Pentagon memos regarding acceptable methods of interrogation. There's John Yoo's memo arguing that the Geneva Conventions and the War Crimes Act do not apply to Al Qaeda and Taliban detainees. There are memos from Colin Powell and William Taft IV of the State Department urging Bush to follow the Geneva Conventions. There are memos from then-Attorney General Ashcroft's and then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales rebuffing the State Department and encouraging President Bush to disregard the Geneva Conventions. There is a memo from the president himself saying he has the authority to suspend Geneva, but that detainees should be treated in a manner "consistent with the principles of Geneva" (of course, "to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity.") There is the memo from William J. Haynes, II, General Counsel at the Pentagon, seeking justification of many interrogation techniques as long as there is no "intent" for "severe physical pain inflicted" or "prolonged mental harm." And, of course, there is the memo from Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee that defines torture very, very narrowly (inflicting "severe pain" that rises to the level of pain associated with "death, organ failure, or the permanent impairment of a significant body function").

There is a way to argue that these memos, especially Bybee's, encouraged the abuse of detainees--not so much in the prescriptive language (listing techniques that are allowed, such as light deprivation and 20-hour interrogations), but in the vagueness of the proscriptive language (you're okay as long as there is no "intent" of long-term damage; stay away from our narrow version of torture, but certain "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" acts are not "torture").

Proponents of humane treatment of detainees ought to avoid the legerdemain and sensationalizing that have been so tempting to the left. I'm mostly talking about picking out the most shocking phrases from these memos. Bybee's memo does not equate torture only with "death, organ failure, or permanent failure of a significant body function," as I've seen bandied about, but in one of many definitions says the pain inflicted must rise to the level of pain associated with those phenomena.

Perhaps most egregious is the conventional wisdom that Gonzales called the Geneva Conventions "quaint" and "obsolete." This has become almost unquestioned conventional wisdom on the left, a disingenuous rhetorical cudgel used by people who probably have never read the memo. Here's the passage:

In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on question of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions requiring that captured enemy be afforded such things as commissary privileges, scrip (i.e., advances of monthly pay), athletic uniforms, and scientific instruments.

What Gonzales considers obsolete is the limitations on interrogation, and what he considers quaint are the requirements that detainees get athletic uniforms and trips to the PX. I imagine there are probably parts of Geneva he does not consider obsolete or quaint. By latching onto this quote, one misses the forest for the trees. What is more shocking than calling Geneva "quaint" or "obsolete" is that Gonzales wants the president to use the Constitution to claim the authority to disregard international human rights treaties, a policy which has trickled down to the ass-kicking, teenager-raping "bad apples" that the press continually burns in effigy while the architects of the disastrous policies worry about polls and steer their blood-spattered juggernaut through the rest of the region.

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