European reaction to visiting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s statements on torture can be summed up in lead commentary Wednesday in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, among the most widely respected German newspapers. Under the title “Justice à la Rice,” the editor “translated” her message into these words: “The end justifies the means, and terrorism can be fought with borderline methods on the outer edges of legality.” He added: “Rice came to Germany to begin a new era. She has resoundingly failed to do so. Injustice remains injustice, and a wrong policy remains a wrong policy. On this basis you cannot re-launch the trans-Atlantic relationship.”
There was no mushroom cloud, but Rice is radioactive nonetheless. No matter how much she and the embedded reporters traveling with her tried to spin her words, they are falling on deaf ears in Europe. Even here at home, the administration is encountering unusual skepticism in the heretofore-domesticated media. The normally sleepy editorial side of the Washington Post, for example, found it possible to lead its first editorial yesterday by reminding readers that Rice broke no new ground in claiming Wednesday that U.S. personnel “wherever they are” are prohibited from using cruel or inhuman interrogation techniques. This is hardly a profile in courage for the Post: The president’s spokesman, Scott McClellan, had already told reporters that Rice was merely expressing existing policy.
Trouble on the Home Front
With attention riveted on the cause célèbre occasioned by revelations concerning CIA-run prisons abroad, kidnapping, and “extraordinary renditions” of captives to torture-prone foreign countries and the predictably neuralgic reaction among our allies it is easy to miss the likely political fallout here at home.
Vice President Dick Cheney, whose unbridled chutzpah has led him to take public and well as private credit for being the intellectual author of U.S. policy on torture, has become such a glaring liability that his tenure may be short-lived. There is a growing possibility that the vice president will resign at the turn of the year “for reasons of health,” and that his partner-in-crime in what Colin Powell’s former chief of staff at the State Department, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, has labeled the “Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal” will choose to retire to his home in Taos early next year.
Never in the 60 years since World War II has an American secretary of state been received with such hostility by our erstwhile friends in Europe. In one sense, it can be seen as poetic justice that Rice, who as national security adviser to the president never heard a Cheney suggestion she didn’t like, is taking the heat, while the vice president hides behind her skirts. Poetic justice for Cheney himself, though, may be just around the corner.
It is no secret that Cheney bears primary responsibility for making our country a pariah among nations by punching a gaping hole in the (until now) absolute ban on torture under international and U.S. law. Under international treaties, including treaties ratified by the U.S. Senate and thus the supreme law of the land, civilized societies have long since prohibited practices widely recognized as torture. No matter. At the instigation of the Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal, the inherent human right to physical integrity and personal dignity has become an early casualty of the U.S. “war on terror.”
We did not need Col. Wilkerson to tell us that. What he has revealed in tracing responsibility for the U.S. rogue policy on torture to the office of the vice president and Rumsfeld merely confirmed much of what is already known, but reported meagerly if at all in U.S. media.
Just five days after 9/11, the vice president told Tim Russert on NBC’s Meet the Press:
“We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side a lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.”
At that same time, President George W. Bush reportedly issued instructions to the CIA to take a no-holds-barred approach when interrogating suspected terrorists and, according to counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke, used colorful language to impress his attitude upon Clarke and Rumsfeld: “I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.” The head of the Counterterrorism Center at the CIA conveyed the atmosphere quite well when he testified to Congress that after 9/11 “the gloves were off.”
This was the message conveyed to CIA director George Tenet, who dutifully marched off to find interrogators to be set loose on “suspected terrorists” likely to be captured in Afghanistan and then Iraq. For it was clear from the start that Iraq, too, was in the gun sights of Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the president himself.
“Dark-side” operations, using “any means at our disposal” like, say, “enhanced interrogation techniques” by law require a “finding” signed by the president. Before signing, Bush would have sought the advice of his White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales the more so, since this particular finding raised serious questions with regard not only to international law but also to U.S. criminal statutes, and particularly the War Crimes Act of 1996 (18 U.S.C. 2441).
Enter the (in)famous memorandum of Jan. 25, 2002, from Gonzales to the president, in which some provisions of the Geneva Conventions on prisoners of war were described as “quaint” and “obsolete.” Referring to the U.S. War Crimes Act, the author of that memorandum argued that there was a “reasonable basis in law” that Bush could escape future criminal prosecution for violating that law.
Powell Protests … Not Too Much
Then-Secretary of State (and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) Colin Powell protested, and his warning, which was inserted into the Jan. 25 memorandum to the president, speaks volumes:
“A determination that the GPW [Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War] does not apply to al-Qaeda and the Taliban could undermine U.S. military culture which emphasizes maintaining the highest standards of conduct in combat, and could introduce an element of uncertainty in the status of adversaries.”
In a memo dated Jan. 26, 2002, Powell also warned that such behavior by the U.S. would “undermine public support among critical allies [and] reverse over a century of U.S. policy and practice in supporting the Geneva conventions and undermine the protections of the law of war for our own troops.” But Powell was a day late and a penny short with these latter warnings. And it is altogether likely that then-National Security Adviser Rice, at the prompting of the cabal, never showed the president Powell’s Jan. 26 memorandum. As for the Cheney/Rumsfeld/Bush-shy Powell, he confined himself to sending memos to the president’s lawyer.
And so, on Feb. 7, 2002, Bush signed the watershed memorandum telling our armed forces “to treat detainees humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of Geneva.” Therein lies the gaping loophole that largely accounts for the widespread practice of torture of the kind so graphically represented in the photos from Abu Ghraib. It was not a “few bad apples” at the bottom. The bad apples were at the very top of the barrel.
But Who Wrote the Jan. 25 Memorandum?
The author was Cheney’s legal counsel, David Addington, whom the vice president had the gall to promote to be his chief of staff after I. Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby was indicted. Addington’s authorship has been openly acknowledged, and Cheney appears to regard it as a feather in Addington’s cap. One searches in vain, however, for legal experts who support Addington’s tortured (no pun intended) reasoning. Indeed, in Nov. 2004, 130 prominent jurists including 12 federal judges, eight former American Bar Association presidents, and former FBI director William Sessions issued a highly unusual statement criticizing Addington and others by name for failing in their “high obligation to defend the Constitution.”
Bypassing the “Six Blind Mice”
What is new is the willingness of patriotic officials within the government to put their country before their career and go to the media to blow the whistle on the various indignities and crimes they have witnessed. Those officials, initially cowed by the object lesson served up by White House retaliation against former ambassador Joseph Wilson, have become increasingly scandalized at the jettisoning of long accepted practices like those that used to govern interrogations. And so, officials with firsthand knowledge have now begun to come forward and tell what has been going on, in hopes of getting the country back on track. Cheney no longer has Libby to keep his finger in the dike to prevent leaks that are fast becoming a flood, and Karl Rove is preoccupied with his own efforts to avoid indictment.
Most important, Cheney’s formidable power has been deeply dented by the indictment of his closest aide Libby, and the vice president’s unabashed support of torture has prompted old friends and colleagues like Gen. Brent Scowcroft to say, “I don’t know Dick Cheney.” Absolute power may still corrupt absolutely even when it is deeply dented, but then it is not as threatening to those with the courage to confront it.
It is no surprise that patriotic truth-tellers within the government have chosen to go to the fourth estate rather than to a Congress controlled by the president’s party. Their choice reflects a realization that little but trouble can be expected in seeking recourse from those who have become known as “the six blind mice” Senators Pat Roberts, John Warner, and Richard Lugar, who chair the committees with jurisdiction in the Senate; and Congressmen Pete Hoekstra, Duncan Hunter, and Henry Hyde in the House.
This article first appeared on Truthout.com.