WASHINGTON – Stung by Amnesty International’s condemnation of U.S. detention facilities in Iraq and elsewhere overseas, the administration of President George W. Bush is reacting with indignation and even suggestions that terrorists are using the world’s largest human rights organization.
The latest denunciation came from Bush himself during a White House press conference Tuesday. “I’m aware of the Amnesty International report, and it’s absurd. The United States is a country that promotes freedom around the world,” he said, adding that Washington had “investigated every single complaint against [sic] the detainees.”
“It seemed like [Amnesty] based some of their decisions on the word and allegations by people who were held in detention, people who hate America, people had been trained in some instances to disassemble [sic] that means not tell the truth,” Bush went on. “And so it was an absurd report. It just is.”
At issue is an Amnesty report released last Thursday that assailed U.S. detention practices. Since its release, a succession of top administration officials and their right-wing backers in the major media has denounced the London-based group in what appears increasingly like an orchestrated effort to discredit independent human rights critics. A similar campaign appeared to target Newsweek magazine earlier this month.
“It looks like a campaign,” Human Rights Watch advocacy chief Reed Brody said Tuesday. “There’s been a real drumbeat since Amnesty published the report. It seems like there’s an attempt to silence critics.”
Bush’s reaction Tuesday largely mirrored that of Vice President Dick Cheney in an interview taped on Friday and broadcast Sunday evening by CNN.
“For Amnesty International to suggest that somehow the United States is a violator of human rights, I frankly just don’t take them seriously,” the vice president said in response to Amnesty’s report.
“Frankly, I was offended by it. I think the fact of the matter is, the United States has done more to advance the cause of freedom, has liberated more people from tyranny over the course of the 20th century and up to the present day than any other nation in the history of the world.”
As to allegations of mistreatment of detainees, Cheney argued that “if you trace those back, in nearly every case, it turns out to come from somebody who has been inside and been released to their home country and now are peddling lies about how they were treated.”
Other senior officials have also weighed in. Like Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the Amnesty report “absurd,” while the military Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, said it was “absolutely irresponsible” and insisted that the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was a “model facility” where prisoners have been treated “humanely.”
Amnesty’s Secretary General, Irene Khan, made the specific allegation against which the administration has unleashed its fury.
She referred to the overseas network of U.S. detention facilities established by Washington in Iraq and elsewhere as part of what it calls its “global war on terror,” as “the gulag of our times,” a reference to the system of prison and labor camps run during the Stalinist period of the former Soviet Union.
While the Washington Post, normally a defender of independent human rights groups, objected to her characterization as counterproductive, the Wall Street Journal‘s neoconservative editorial staff jumped on it as “one more sign of the moral degradation of Amnesty International.”
The Journal, which often reflects the views of influential hardline policymakers like Cheney, called Amnesty a “highly politicized pressure group” whose latest accusations “amount to pro-al-Qaeda propaganda.”
Anticipating the vice president’s CNN’s remarks, the Journal, which also has campaigned against the International Committee of the Red Cross for criticizing Washington’s treatment of detainees, added that “a ‘human rights’ group that can’t distinguish between Stalin’s death camps and detention centers for terrorists who kill civilians can’t be taken seriously.”
David Rivkin and Lee Casey, two lawyers who often reflect the views of other members of the right-wing nationalist Federalist Society who hold senior legal positions in the administration, soon joined the Journal.
In an article published by National Review online entitled “Amnesty Unbelievable,” the two men charged that the organization’s critical report “says much more about the nature of Amnesty International and the agenda of similar left-wing non-governmental organizations (NGOs) than it does about the human-rights record of the United States.”
Like the Journal, Casey and Rivkin said they were incensed at the suggestion by the head of Amnesty’s U.S. section, William Schulz, that Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and other senior U.S. officials who had a role in authorizing abusive interrogation practices should be prosecuted in foreign jurisdictions for violations of the Geneva and torture conventions committed against detainees if the administration continued to reject calls by human rights and lawyers’ groups for an independent investigation.
In their view, Amnesty “is trapped in a 20th-century mindset where the greatest threat to individual life and liberty stemmed from the actions of sovereign governments. That is simply no longer the case.” NGOs, they added, “simply do not consider that the defense of the American population, and the vindication of each individual’s right to live without the threat or actuality of terrorist attack, is their problem and it is time they did.”
Amnesty, however, has stood its ground. “At Guantanamo, the U.S. has operated an isolated prison camp in which people are confined arbitrarily, held virtually incommunicado, without charge, trial, or access to due process. Not a single Guantanamo detainee has had the legality of their detention reviewed by a court,” despite a Supreme Court ruling last year that provided grounds to do so.
“Guantanamo is only the visible part of the story. Evidence continues to mount that the U.S. operates a network of detention centers where people are held in secret or outside any proper legal framework from Afghanistan to Iraq and beyond,” it added, noting that Bush had failed to respond to these “long-standing concerns.”
“It is worth also worth noting,” stressed Schulz, “that this administration never finds it ‘absurd’ when we criticize Cuba or China, or when we condemned the violations in Iraq under Saddam Hussein.”
Bush’s and Cheney’s insistence that the detainees themselves concocted the reported abuses also drew criticism.
“You really don’t have to look further than the Pentagon’s own reports,” said Elisa Massimino, Washington director of Human Rights First, formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. “There’s ample substantiation of serious abuses,” she said, adding that the administration’s “ostrich approach” was “dangerous. The problems are there, and they’re going to continue to pose a risk to U.S. lives and policy until they’re dealt with.”
HRW’s Brody echoed that view. “What is sad is that this effort at damage control may work in the U.S.,” he said, “but unless the administration addresses the real issues of concern torture, rendition, disappearances, systematic humiliation of Muslim prisoners then the U.S. image in the world will continue to erode.”
(Inter Press Service)