As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Happy Torture Of July

I have pulled back from writing about the torture debate of late because it's just too painful. There can be no question that this country used taxpayer-funded federal agencies like the CIA and the Department of Defense to enact cruel, degrading and illegal techniques on terrorism suspects as young as twelve, pushing them into false confessions and generally making it impossible to separate the guilty from the innocent, in a mad search for evidence, including confessions linking Iraq and Saddam Hussein with Al Qaeda and 9-11. These acts of torture, which we reversed engineered from the Chinese Communists (who also used them to extract false confessions) were far from benign or even ephemeral; indeed, at least 100 prisoners in custody died from torture, both at secret prisons abroad, in Iraq and in Afghanistan, where the very same base of operations for the torture of prisoners, Bagram, continues to house hundreds of suspects without charges. When civil liberties groups and ordinary Americans learned of these acts of torture, authorized and directed at the highest levels right out of the White House, those in power sought to destroy the evidence, and even to this day, the Administration that succeeded them has done everything in its power to cover up much of the worst abuses and ensure no accountability for these actions. To this day, some of the people directly involved in the torture regime continue to work in their positions under the Obama Administration.

Some would consider this a terrible subject to write about on the Fourth of July. I think it's the perfect time. I believe that the founding of the nation rings hollow when we can no longer say without laughing that here, the people rule, that no man is king and nobody is above the law, that we have a government of, by and for the people. The difficulties of passing legislation that moves us forward into the future were in many ways baked into the checks and balances of the system. Those processes can change. But the stain of torture, combined with the complete lack of accountability for it, must not get swept out with the old Administration like a bad policy. Indeed, the spectacle of watching the Democratic President essentially follow the Republican President in enshrining civil liberties abuses into law , gaining support on both sides, is deeply distasteful and distressing to me as an American.

I guess I'm supposed to be cheered by the fact that the President won't sign an executive order bringing the concept of preventive detention, the idea of indefinitely holding prisoners without charges, into this American experiment. And I should take solace that some in the Justice Department believe that detainees in our custody do have protections in the legal system against being charged using evidence gained through torture or coercion. But none of this is really good enough. Torture is a bright line that should separate civilized societies from the uncivilized. It is true that the courts and even some of the internal Justice Department mechanisms at the Office of Legal Counsel have resisted this headlong push into codifying some of the worst abuses of the Bush Administration. And yet those tactics and actions seen as wrong, as illegal, as the cause of hundreds if not thousands of deaths, have no sanction. And we live with this moral rot. And it's a rot which almost necessarily leads to other abuses, as we get swept up in almost a fever dream, where security trumps liberty and fear overpowers reason.

Donald Rumsfeld has finally said he's sorry. Sort of.

In an interview with biographer Bradley Graham, the former secretary of defense says he has regrets about the administration's controversial detainee policy.

The twist is that Rumsfeld doesn't regret the policy itself -- specifically the abandoning of the Geneva Conventions for detainees picked up in Afghanistan. Rather, he regrets how the policy was formulated.

Here's the relevant section from Graham's book:

With the passage of time, Rumsfeld has come to recognize that he made a mistake, although he sees the error as one of process, not basic judgment. He faults himself for taking too legalistic an approach initially, saying it would have been better if senior Pentagon officials responsible for policy and management matters had been brought in earlier to play more of a role and provide a broader perspective. As he explained in an interview in late 2008, policies were developing so fast in the weeks after the September 11 attacks that he did not follow his own normal procedures. "All of a sudden, it was just all happening, and the general counsel's office in the Pentagon had the lead," he said. "It never registered in my mind in this particular instance--it did in almost every other case--that these issues ought to be in a policy development or management posture. Looking back at it now, I have a feeling that was a mistake. In retrospect, it would have been better to take all of those issues and put them in the hands of policy or management."

Further, Rumsfeld conceded, more should have been done to engage Congress in drafting the new policies on detainees--something he said that White House officials had opposed. Although Congress did eventually get involved, he noted that this occurred "in duress" after the Supreme Court ruled in 2006 against the administration's original approach.

"All of a sudden, it was all just happening." Rumsfeld doesn't really take responsibility for the deaths of people in custody, but he recognizes the environment that leads to such mistakes and lapses, a groupthink that eventually consumes the policymakers. It makes a mockery of deliberative democracy to think this could ever happen.

It's not the most festive message on this day, but if we celebrate these United States on the day of its founding, then we must also strive for that union to live up to the founding principles. All men are created equal reads like a punchline in light of the past eight years and even these last several months. And there is no better time to ruminate on how we can be worthy of the sacrifices of those who started a revolution to bring self-government to this colonized collection of states.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,