Will the U.S. Senate Endorse Torture?


Despite evasive answers to questions about his role in creating a pervasive policy environment that made the U.S. government's torture of prisoners just good, clean fun, White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales seems poised to win Senate approval as Attorney General. That shocking outcome would reaffirm that the politically minded Congress often takes a distorted view of what this country is supposed to stand for. 

In the past, Congress has meted out punishments to presidents or their prospective appointees for far lesser transgressions than culpability in torture. For example, President Bill Clinton was impeached-a rarity in American history-by Congress for having sex with an intern and lying about it. Although Clinton was guilty of bad behavior, this breach of ethics nowhere approached the severity of enabling the brutal treatment of prisoners in the government's custody. Similarly, Congress denied Judge Robert Bork a seat on the Supreme Court, not because his sentencing of prisoners was too harsh, but because it merely viewed his policy views as out of the mainstream. 

Although I dislike the term "un-American"-since throughout U.S. history it has often been applied to people who disagreed with whatever war was then the rage-I think the term can safely be applied to torture. Congress should deny high office to anyone who helps create a bureaucratic climate that implicitly endorses such reprehensible behavior. Gonzales has done exactly that.

In January 2002, he drafted a memorandum that advised President Bush that the Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of prisoners did not apply to people apprehended in Afghanistan during war and that some provisions of those conventions were "obsolete" and "quaint" (the administration is now making noise about renegotiating the conventions). Regardless of whether the Taliban regime had harbored al Qaeda and whether the U.S. invasion of that nation was thus morally justified, captured fighters repelling a foreign invasion should be accorded the protection of the Geneva Conventions. Undoubtedly to deal with this issue, the administration, in February 2002, announced that the conventions would apply to Taliban prisoners but not al Qaeda. Similarly, Gonzales admitted during his confirmation hearing that the U.S. government has issued a legal opinion that non-Iraqi fighters captured in Iraq are not protected by the conventions. Even if "terrorists" are not to be accorded the protection of the conventions-counter-intuitively a dubious policy-it is far from clear that all al Qaeda in Afghanistan and all non-Iraqis fighting the United States in Iraq fit under that heading. For example, contrary to conventional wisdom, the vast bulk of al Qaeda fighters are ordinary foot soldiers and not special forces (terrorists).

More important, although terrorists who kill innocents don't deserve to be protected by the conventions, it may be smart U.S. policy to afford them such protection. In the future, other nations could label U.S. forces as "terrorists" to deny them the shielding against torture provided under the conventions. Republican Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina had this in mind at the Gonzales confirmation hearings when he accused the administration of "playing cute with the law" in handling captives in Iraq and elsewhere. He criticized the administration for dramatically undermining the campaign against terrorism by squandering the moral high ground and endangering the lives of any U.S. soldiers captured.

Even worse, Gonzales by-passed normal channels at the Justice Department when he sought legal advice on the permissibility of coercive interrogation techniques and the applicability of the Geneva conventions. Gonzales' prodding led to an August 2002 department memo that defined torture narrowly and asserted that the president could evade domestic and international (the conventions) prohibitions against torture under the mantle of U.S. national security. Shockingly, the memo limited the definition of torture punishable by law to physical pain "of an intensity akin to that which accompanies serious physical injury such as death or organ failure." Under questioning at the confirmation hearing, Gonzales contracted amnesia about his role in formulating this memo.

Worst of all, Gonzales would not categorically reject as illegal the use of torture by U.S. troops or intelligence operatives in all circumstances. No matter that according to experts, torture is usually ineffective for obtaining truthful and accurate information from prisoners. The captive will simply agree with anything to stop the unpleasantness. 

Coming on the heels of the president's bizarre retention of Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense (Rumsfeld's blundering in Iraq includes the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal), the administration's nomination of Gonzales for Attorney General is an exercise in "in-your-face" chutzpah that is likely to further inflame the Islamic world and result in an even greater threat to U.S. security in the form of blowback terrorism. The Senate should come to its senses and strike twin blows for American security and values by rejecting the Gonzales nomination.


Ivan Eland is the Director of the Center on Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California and author of the book, Putting "Defense" Back into U.S. Defense Policy: Rethinking U.S. Security in the Post-Cold War World.

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  6 Comments   Comment

  1. Maven from USA

    I am afraid the only thing we Americans respect is power. If Iran gives up its nukes, it would be the worst decision. Israel already has a free hand in that region and operates with impunity under American protection. Pakistan has already sold itself out. With the Iranians buckling too the only ace Muslim countries have will be surrendered. My best advise to the Iranians and the Pakistanians- keep that finger on that nuke button. It makes us sit up and listen and be more understanding...and please make sure them nukes are pointed at Israel - not us. ok?

  2. Idris from USA

    Anonymous is right. My own contacts have said the same things. We won't attack Iran until we have hardened defenses in Iraq, and that means that we leave no open rearguard (namely, Syria).

    It's crazy. I hope the Iranians do the right thing and give up their nukes.

    Anyway, the extent of torture is greater than most people realize. The US military has access to methods derived from technology that wasn't developed in the time of Geneva, thus there are no international regulations on usage. Scary stuff. The American people need to be told about it, and they need to go against it. I mean, if we start using torture (can anyone say 'cruel and unusual punishment'?)where do we stop? It's never okay to torture someone, period. And it needs to stay that way; filed safely under the title: Un-American.

  3. anonymous from USA

    I am sure most are aware that the next immediate attack will not be on Iran, it will be Syria. Movement of US troops and logistical support is not in the direction of Iran yet, however it is all towards Syria. For enquiring minds, more than 250 US Marine and Army divisions have moved out there. US Navy destroyers and aircraft carriers have now been stationed closer to Cyprus and Lebanon. This was planned 2 years ago. US citizens have been steadily moved out of Syria. Lebanon has sealed off its border with Syria and so has Turkey and Jordan. Iran is too big a risk for now. The easier target is Syria. Turkish, Cypriot and Israeli government hospitals have been placed on high alert. Fuel ships from Israel have been stationed close to US carriers by Cyprus. For enquiring minds.

  4. Yahya Bergum from USA

    Evidently, Alberto Gonzales' career objective is to become a US Supreme Court justice. To realize this dream he must, seemingly within the next four years, appear again before the US Senate.

    Unlike a nominee for Attorney General - in order to be confirmed, a nominee for the Supreme Court must win a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate. There might be progressive opportunities involving the Senate Judiciary Committee, which determines if the Senate even votes on judiciary appointments, but the need for support by (a few) Senate Democrats might present the resistance with opportunities to hold this particular nominee's feet to the fire, in a manner of speaking. That is, perhaps, as long as the methods employed are not expected to result in some sort of organ failure.

    A republic is a system of government which seems to require effective compromises in order to function. Indeed, when left to go about their business undistracted, politicians seem inclined to fashion some rather artful compromises - presumably in the interests of their constituents. However, as was seen during the 9/11 Congressional Hearings, it sometimes requires sustained lobbying by one or more ordinary citizens to encourage politicians to forge compromises in the best interests of the entire nation.

    The nominee for Attorney General has promised to vigorously prosecute those who have tortured detainees. My suggestion would be to see that the nominee has ample reason to provide substantial evidence of his repentance (in that regard).

    Hopefully, justice would be well served. Hopefully, peace, as well.

  5. Brian McLaughlin from Scotland

    According to Amnesty International, U.S. companies - as well as companies from the United Kingdom, France and Russia - manufacture and sell weapons and other equipment used for torture. .Among them are high-tech electroshock weapons, leg irons and serrated thumb cuffs designed to tear flesh if a detainee intends to escape. Amnesty International believes such devices are "inherently cruel" and their trade should be banned outright.

    .

    The United States is the largest supplier of electro-shock devices. According to Amnesty, 86 U.S. companies manufactured, marketed or sold electro-shock devices during the 1990s. William Schulz, head of the U.S. chapter of the London-based human rights group, stated: "These weapons are used against many people who should be heroes to Americans." In many countries electro-shock has been routinely used against political prisoners. Such devices have also been used against children, pregnant women, the elderly, and the mentally ill.

    .

    The Amnesty report also indicates that the United States, as well the United Kingdom, China, France and Russia, are among the main providers worldwide of training to military, police and security forces of foreign states. Because those forces are the main users of torture technique and equipment, stopping torture means stopping as well the trade and the training that helps create those "professional torturers."

    .

    Even though it is illegal to own some of this equipment in the United States, the U.S. Department of Commerce has granted licenses for their export under the category of "crime control equipment," for sales that amount to $97 million since 1997. Data from that Department also show that Saudi Arabia, Russia, Taiwan, Israel and Egypt are among the major recipients of U.S. equipment.

    Source:

    http://www.commondreams.org/views01/0407-02.htm

  6. Dilawar Khan from U.S.A.

    I am tickled to death with the turn the U.S. has taken in recent years. I say " amend the damn constitution and make George president for life", and then a few years down the road , he (George) and his cabinet would make Mullah Omar and his loonies look like the greatest sages that ever walked this Earth.

    And then we will level the playing fields with our not-so-friendly mullahs for whom educating Muslim girls is akin to apostacy and any intellectual endeavor other than memorising Quran is heresy.