Friday, October 21, 2005

PBS Frontline on "The Torture Question"

It's not easy for a true-blood patriot to watch something like the October 18th Frontline program from PBS. This report takes on "The Torture Question," including Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, and other battlegrounds of the War on Terror. Step by step, the documentary outlines the ways in which the Bush administration systematically undermined America's moral standing in the world by pushing the limits of acceptable civilized interrogation techniques.

The Bush administration has made remarkable — and remarkably dangerous — assertions of power in conducting the so-called War on Terror. The Bush administration claims that the President is unconstrained by any law in the performance of his duties as Commander in Chief of the armed forces of the United States. They claim that neither the Congress nor the Supreme Court nor the people of the United States nor the world community has any authority to second-guess the President in any action he undertakes in what he deems to be a war effort.

The Constitution says, "The President shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States" (Article II, Section 2), but it also says "The Congress shall have power ... to define and punish piracies and felonies committed on the high seas, and offenses against the law of nations; to declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water; ... to make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces; ... to provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States ...; [and] to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over ... forts, magazines, arsenals, dockyards, and other needful buildings." (Article I, Section 8, excerpt)

The Bush administration claims that the Congress does not have power to define or punish offenses against the law of nations, to regulate the land and naval forces, to organize and discipline the militia [i.e., military reserves], or to exercise any legal authority over military bases if they are outside the 50 states. (The Constitution explicitly gave the Congress authority to regulate military bases within the states, but did not anticipate the existence of military bases outside U.S. territory.)

The Bush administration further rendered a legal definition of "torture" that made the crime almost impossible to commit. In essence, the Bush administration said that if it was not specifically your intent to break the law, then you did not break the law. Even there, the Bush administration left itself an out: a pre-emptive declaration that the law against torture is unconstitutional if it restricts the President's prerogatives as Commander in Chief.

The simple reality is that "coercive interrogation" (a.k.a. torture) just doesn't work very well. Prisoners under duress will talk, to be sure, but they will say whatever they think the interrogator wants to hear, whether or not it has even a kernel of truth to it. If you so disorient the prisoner that he loses his grasp on reality, then he has lost his grasp on the reality of the information he provides. Sheik Ibn al-Libi was coercively interrogated, giving information about Iraq's training of al Qaeda operatives in chemical and biological weapons; the problem is that the entire story was fabricated.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld personally authorized the use of interrogation techniques including isolation facilities, deprivation of light, 20-hour interrogations, removal of religious items and clothing, attack dogs, shackling in "stress positions," and poking and prodding prisoners.

Another reality is that the United States has — going back well before Bush became President — used a practice called "extraordinary rendition." The way it works is that U.S. covert operatives kidnap someone and then drop him off in a country such as Morocco, Syria, Jordan, or Egypt, where they are likely to be interrogated rather more roughly than U.S. laws permit. Many of them simply disappear. Many of them, such as Maher Arar, are completely innocent of any connection to terrorism. Mr. Arar, a Canadian citizen since 1991, was kidnaped by American operatives and sent to Syria for the specific purpose of having him tortured, simply because he was an acquaintance of someone who was suspected of terrorist connections. After almost a year of torture, Syria returned Mr. Arar to Canada, admitting that he had committed no crime and knew nothing about any terrorist plans.

I've said it before: the United States is a great nation, built on a foundation of ideals that shine forth to humanity with hope for what a democracy can be. In June 2003, President Bush said, "The United States is committed to the worldwide elimination of torture and we are leading this fight by example."

However, we as a nation often fall short of our ideals, and it's not hard to find examples. Slavery, genocide against the American Indians, wars of imperialist aggression (Texas in the 1830's, México in the 1840's, Hawaii and Spain in the 1890's), and now torture of innocent civilians.

The war against terrorism will never be won on a battlefield, nor in a prison torture chamber. It must be won in the marketplace of ideas. We must make a convincing case to the rest of the world that they will be better served by supporting America than by supporting those who would destroy it. We won't achieve that goal by stooping to the level of the terrorists.