Wednesday, October 26, 2005

SOMETIMES I WISH that when Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton, and -- god help me -- even George Herbert Walker Bush, were in the White House, I had worried less about the damage I thought they were doing to the United States, and the illegal, unconstitutional policies I thought were being carried out during their administrations. I wish that instead I had appreciated the moderate, balanced, principled ways in which those presidents conducted themselves.

If I had had any inkling back then of the evil that would insinuate itself into my country's leadership; if I could have imagined that one day I would look back at Ronald Reagan with longing for a president who supported an international treaty that banned cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of prisoners -- instead of aggressively working to persuade Congress to allow cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment -- then maybe I would have been thankful for what I and other Americans had in those years, and savored them while I still could.

But those days are long gone; and now we have a president who tells the world the United States will no longer respect or follow the Geneva Conventions, or the U.N. Convention Against Torture, or even our own laws against torture.

Now we have a vice-president who publicly supports torture and aggressively works to persuade Congress to allow the United States to practice torture and be exempt from legislation that bans torture.

VICE PRESIDENT Cheney is aggressively pursuing an initiative that may be unprecedented for an elected official of the executive branch: He is proposing that Congress legally authorize human rights abuses by Americans. "Cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment of prisoners is banned by an international treaty negotiated by the Reagan administration and ratified by the United States. The State Department annually issues a report criticizing other governments for violating it. Now Mr. Cheney is asking Congress to approve legal language that would allow the CIA to commit such abuses against foreign prisoners it is holding abroad. In other words, this vice president has become an open advocate of torture.

For those who are not aware of the legislation that triggered Cheney's crusade (and I used that word intentionally), here is a brief history.

Three weeks ago, the Senate overwhelmingly approved the McCain amendment, which is attached to a $440 billion defense appropriations bill. The amendment bars "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment" against any foreign detainee in U.S. custody.

Cheney opposed this amendment because it would probably make a number of current CIA interrogation practices -- such as waterboarding (simulated drownings) and mock executions -- illegal. Having failed to prevent the passage of the defense spending bill that included the amendment, Cheney is now trying to get Congress to insert language explictly exempting CIA operatives from any ban on torture.

So far, McCain has said no to the exemption:

Mr. McCain rejected the proposed exemption, which stated that the measure "shall not apply with respect to clandestine counterterrorism operations conducted abroad, with respect to terrorists who are not citizens of the United States, that are carried out by an element of the United States government other than the Department of Defense and are consistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States and treaties to which the United States is a party, if the president determines that such operations are vital to the protection of the United States or its citizens from terrorist attack."

The WaPo editorial writers say that [Cheney's] position is not just some abstract defense of presidential power."

The CIA is holding an unknown number of prisoners in secret detention centers abroad. In violation of the Geneva Conventions, it has refused to register those detainees with the International Red Cross or to allow visits by its inspectors. Its prisoners have "disappeared," like the victims of some dictatorships. The Justice Department and the White House are known to have approved harsh interrogation techniques for some of these people, including "waterboarding," or simulated drowning; mock execution; and the deliberate withholding of pain medication. CIA personnel have been implicated in the deaths during interrogation of at least four Afghan and Iraqi detainees. Official investigations have indicated that some aberrant practices by Army personnel in Iraq originated with the CIA. Yet no CIA personnel have been held accountable for this record, and there has never been a public report on the agency's performance.

It's not surprising that Mr. Cheney would be at the forefront of an attempt to ratify and legalize this shameful record. The vice president has been a prime mover behind the Bush administration's decision to violate the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Convention Against Torture and to break with decades of past practice by the U.S. military. These decisions at the top have led to hundreds of documented cases of abuse, torture and homicide in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Cheney's counsel, David S. Addington, was reportedly one of the principal authors of a legal memo justifying the torture of suspects.

The White House has stated categorically that it will veto any defense spending bill that contains McCain's amendment, or any other language preventing the CIA from torturing detainees in other countries, "contending that it would bind the president's hands in wartime."

If leaving the president's hands unbound means that he will be allowed to violate domestic law and international conventions that prohibit torture, while insisting that other countries be bound by those prohibitions, then bring on the rope, because his hands should be tied.

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