(Photo via Face the Nation/Karin Cooper. Left to right, Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Bush’s National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, haggle in the green room before the show.)
There was a clue dropped into the middle of a WaPo article yesterday regarding the discomfort a whole lot of Republicans are feeling about the Bush-backed, rush attempt to change the laws dealing with interrogation and the application of the Geneva Conventions to al qaeda.
I honestly think that there are some lawmakers who, on principle, have opposed these changes — despite the elements of political calculation involved, I do think that McCain has a very good understanding of why torture should not be our set policy and what the implications for our men and women in uniform would be…you know, having been tortured himself, and all, it gives him a very stark window into what that can mean. And I think that both Lindsey Graham and John Warner, having spent much of their lives immersed in the minutiae of military personnel policies and legal precedents involved, have a very clear understanding of what muddying the waters could mean for enlisted personnel on this issue.
There are indications that a compromise on the issue may now be sought by the White House, which is feeling the heat (or acting as though it is in some weird public kabuki designed to buck up that whole "independent Republicans" meme we talked about yesterday as a pre-election strategy). From the NYTimes:
Mr. McCain has said that redefining the practices allowed under Common Article 3, which outlaws “outrages upon personal dignity” and “humiliating and degrading treatment,” would ultimately harm captured American soldiers and further undercut the United States image abroad. Mr. Hadley repeated on Sunday the administration’s position that the White House wanted to clarify how the provision applied to Qaeda prisoners and others termed “unlawful combatants.”
Other administration officials said it became clear over the weekend that the administration was going to have to give ground. “I don’t think anyone anticipated the avalanche of opinion that would be assembled on the other side of what seemed like a pretty abstruse legal issue,” one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to discuss the issue with a reporter….
Then, adding to the administration’s pain on the issue, he said: “By the way, I forgot to mention this: George Shultz said I could say that he strongly favors our position.” Mr. Shultz was President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, and his endorsement would add another powerful Republican voice in opposition to Mr. Bush, along with that of former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.
At his Rose Garden news conference on Friday, Mr. Bush said Congress must provide “clarity” to C.I.A. interrogators seeking to extract information about future attacks from “enemy combatants.”
But Mr. Bush and Mr. Hadley have declined to say what kind of “alternative interrogation practices” they want to make explicitly legal, so interrogators do not have to fear prosecution under the War Crimes Act for violating the Geneva Conventions. Common Article 3 does not define exactly what constitutes violations of personal dignity or degrading treatment.
I wonder if it has even occurred to the Bush Administration that Common Article III of the Geneva Conventions was left to some interpretation precisely because it was a document which was meant to stand the test of time, and which would allow for an evolving interpretation as standards of behavior evolved in civilized societies. What may have been considered a common practice in the 1400s, say, is not now something that we would consider to be appropriate in terms of treatment of prisoners. Thus why would the drafters of Article III not plan for that same evolution of thought and practice over time in writing a law which is to be applied via treaty signature (of which the United States is a party, btw, and has been for years and years) across a broad range of cultural and national boundaries.
And note in the quoted passage above that the Bush Administration simply thought we’d be too lazy or too stupid to pay attention to their illegal maneuvers and machinations. Wrong again.
Let’s be honest, until the Bush Administration evinced a problem with their reading comprehension of the Geneva Conventions on this issue, no other American President since we became a signatory has had this sort of issue with Article III. George Bush simply wants his way, and no mere law is going to stop him — that’s really the bottom line, isn’t it? (L’etat? C’est moi.)
So, instead of putting forth an argument on the merits, the Bush Administration has deployed the "if you disagree with us, you aren’t really patriotic" brigades under the guise of "you want to aid al qaeda" — and they have been calling McCain, Graham and Warner to pass along the Administration’s message at the urging of the integrity-free stylings of Hannity, Limbaugh and company. Classy.
Nothing like haranguing a man who was tortured over a period of years while wearing our nation’s uniform about the fact that he doesn’t fully understand why our nation needs to torture to really clarify who fails to truly understand the long-term implications of our current policies on our nation’s military and intelligence forces.
“This issue is not them — this issue is about us,” he said of terrorists, facing an audience sipping cocktails on a lush lawn next to a pool. “The United States has always been better than our enemies. I’ll tell you right now: one of the things in prison, in North Vietnam, that kept us strong was that we knew we were not like our enemies. That we came from a better nation, with better values, with better standards.”…
“What is this all about?” he continued. “It’s all about the United States of America and what is going to happen to Americans who are taken prisoner in future wars.”
Is there political calculation in McCain’s actions? Oh sure. I mean, honestly, he’s a politician — which of them isn’t constantly framing and reframing in terms of politics?
But beyond that, there are certain principles on which America has stood for generations, and this is one of them — from George Washington onward, humane and decent treatment of prisoners by this nation has been one of the hard and fast rules of our nation’s military.
Have there been instances where that treatment has been less than decent? Certainly. Human beings are fallible, and they should pay for the consequences of stepping over the line when they do so. But the official rules and regulations have been fairly clear since Washington’s command of the Continental Army…until the Bush Administration.
The official rules and regs are what this nation will be judged on by other nations, by other combatants…and will be the likely treatment our own soldiers and intelligence officers will face in the hands of the enemy.
And one question that we need to ask ourselves is this: is the treatment to which we are subjecting others something that you would be comfortable visiting on an American soldier? Because our actions are inviting just that from other enemy forces…and we need to be conscious of that with every single decision we make in this arena. Tom Malinowski, in an op-ed in the WaPo, has some suggestions for President Bush’s "to read" pile:
Finally, the president might review the memoirs of former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, who describes experiencing sleep deprivation in a Soviet prison in the 1940s: "In the head of the interrogated prisoner a haze begins to form. His spirit is wearied to death, his legs are unsteady, and he has one sole desire: to sleep, to sleep just a little, not to get up, to lie, to rest, to forget. . . . Anyone who has experienced this desire knows that not even hunger or thirst are comparable with it. . . . I came across prisoners who signed what they were ordered to sign, only to get what the interrogator promised them. He did not promise them their liberty. He promised them — if they signed — uninterrupted sleep!"
The Soviets understood that these methods were cruel. They were also honest with themselves about the purpose of such cruelty — to brutalize their enemies and to extract false confessions, rather than truthful intelligence. By denying this, President Bush is not just misleading us. He appears to be deceiving himself.
We are better than this, as a nation. Moreover, we expect those we elect to lead us to be better than this. And we need to tell them so.
Up until now, the Democratic strategy has been to sit back and let the GOP fight it out amongst themselves, so that the Dem leadership doesn’t have to get its hands dirty on this issue — and, moreover, doesn’t have to risk being labeled as weak on terror by the Rove brigades in yet another election year branding war. The problem with that being twofold: can you trust the Republicans to stand on principle on this issue without caving to Bush Administration demands and threats and, more importantly, shouldn’t the Democrats be standing up for American principles strongly, and with conviction?
The clue in the WaPo article from yesterday? It sure sounds to me like the GOP is pissed that the Bush Administration has dumped the mess of George Bush’s making in the lap of the Republican-controlled Congress right before the election. It seems that George’s pass the buck routine is wearing thin on a whole lot of Republicans facing a difficult election cycle because the President’s botched leadership has made their re-election hopes much less sound.
But misgivings over the agenda set out by the president and GOP leaders are growing. Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) said he told Bush on Thursday that he should heed the military’s top uniformed lawyers, who have opposed some provisions of the president’s tribunal plan. Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.), one of several moderate Northeasterners in tough reelection campaigns, said he has no problem with Bush’s bills. He is likely to vote against them.
The problem, Lungren said, is that the complexity of the tribunal and wiretapping issues do not lend themselves to the quick action Bush wants.
"This is a big deal to drop in our laps," he added. "There is some discomfort with the time period we’ve been given."
Perhaps the Democratic strategy is to push from the background and exploit that wedge while they can among the GOP. If so, it is a smart move — but only so long as the Warner/McCain/Graham unit stands on principle. And it does not protect the House flank from the Duncan Hunter manipulation of the process in conference. This is one time when many voices raised in support of the rule of law can make a big difference in terms of the actions of those legislators who know that it is the right thing to stand up for principle. They need to know that we have their back on this issue — because it is the right thing to do.
Clearly the wingnut Wurlitzer is in full CYA for Bush mode in terms of calls to Congress. This morning, we need to give a bit of pushback, and make certain that the elected officials in both the House and the Senate clearly understand that some American values are still held sacred by members of the public.
Tell your elected officials that torture should not be an officially sanctioned policy of the United States of America — that General George Washington had it right from the nation’s founding. Tell them that if a public trial was good enough for the Nazis, it ought to be good enough for the terrorists against whom we fight today.
And tell them that you expect them to uphold and protect the Constitution of the United States, our Bill of Rights and our international treaty obligations — because the Rule of Law is more important that protecting George Bush’s ego…and that our nation’s reputation is more important than the short run unilateral executive power grab by this Administration.
While we are at it, remind your elected officials that they cannot simply legislate away the requirements of the Constitution — that requires an amendment for which they will not get support in this nation, and that we are well aware that their actions on this issue are disengenous at best. There are much bigger problems to work on in the short period of legislative time they have before the elections than ratifying torture, only to have it overturned by the Courts who have already shown their commitment to the Constitution and our treaty signature via the Hamdan case.
We gave our word from our nation’s founding to work toward a "more perfect union" — let us not take steps backward in our generation. We owe to all of the generations to come to stand fast for the rule of law over the fleeting whims of any one man.
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(H/T to LHP for the heads up on the NYTimes articles this morning.)
UPDATE: Balkinization (H/T Redshift) and ACSBlog have some thoughts on problems with the Warner/McCain/Graham version of the bill, specifically with regard to evidentiary issues. Anyone who has either done criminal defense work or prosecuted cases will understand the problems with the use of hearsay evidence — and the enormity of the issues raised when you strip some of these protections regarding the hearsay evidence out of the mix as proposed by this bill.