Sins of Commission | The Bush Crime Family and its use of torture | This is your President's handiwork

Sins of Commission:

Have Republicans become the party of torture, secret prisons, and indefinite detention? In his speech last month on signing the Military Commissions Act (MCA), President Bush declared that the bill “sends a clear message. ... We will never back down from the threats to our freedom.” “Rough interrogation” (a.k.a. torture) in the name of freedom may be Bush’s clearest ideological legacy.<

The president endlessly reminds listeners that “the U.S. does not torture” and that “torture is not an American value.” But “What is torture?” is the Bush version of the Pontius Pilate question. He appears to be using the definition of torture crafted by Justice Department official John Yoo: if detainees weren’t maimed or killed, they weren’t tortured. And the Justice Department acts as though, even if detainees are killed during interrogations, it is best to treat the deaths as harmless errors.

The MCA was rushed through Congress in September to overturn a Supreme Court decision that struck down Bush’s military tribunals and his scorning of the Geneva Conventions. The new law—far more dangerous than the more controversial Patriot Act—is perhaps the biggest disgrace Congress has enacted since the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Stephen Gray, the author of Ghost Plane, notes, “The act grants fewer rights to defendants than the Nazis got at Nuremberg.'


As long as the Justice Department doesn’t prosecute federal torturers, Bush can continue denying U.S. torture. People killed during interrogations thus remain the exceptions that prove the rule that the U.S. never tortures. The military classified the deaths of at least 34 detainees as suspected or confirmed homicides; the CIA has released no tally of its morgue entries.

The New Yorker noted, “under the Bush administration’s secret interrogation guidelines, the killing of Jamadi might not have broken any laws.” Unfortunately, there is no reason to assume that Bush has not given interrogators a license to kill. Steven Bradbury, head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, told a closed session of the Senate Intelligence Committee early this year that Bush could order killings of suspected terrorists within the United States. When Newsweek contacted the Justice Department to verify this novel legal doctrine, spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos stressed that Bradbury’s comments occurred during an “off-the-record briefing.” Any Bush-ordered killings within the United States would also presumably be off the record.

President Bush has been able to seize nearly boundless power because his administration has been able to control what Americans know. But this control is crumbling. Democratic congressional investigations, court cases, and the military tribunals themselves could unearth far more damaging documents and photographs than anything seen thus far.

The MCA is “enabling act” legislation that preserves the appearance of law while empowering the commander in chief to do as he pleases. Bush’s torture policies may signal that he accepts the dicta of Richard Nixon: “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” But the firewall of high approval ratings that buttressed Bush when the first Abu Ghraib photos leaked is gone. The media is exasperated with the administration’s penchant for secrecy. Much of Bush’s conservative intellectual bodyguard has given up the fight. It remains to be seen how much dunking, thumping, and cold water the Bush team can survive.


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