Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Top administration officials sanctioned torture

Why you're right:

1. Top Pentagon officials sanctioned torture. A memo prepared in March 2003 for Donald Rumsfeld argued "the president, despite domestic and international laws constraining the use of torture, has the authority as commander in chief to approve almost any physical or psychological actions during interrogation, up to and including torture." High-level Pentagon lawyers asserted that inflicting pain, whether physical or mental, on prisoners was not torture if it wasn't severe. This is a significant departure from the Army definition which defines torture as "the use of force, mental torture, threats, insults, or exposure to unpleasant and inhumane treatment of any kind." Even if the pain inflicted was severe the memo advised the President could legally authorize torture if he deemed it a "necessity." (Wall Street Journal, Army Manual)

2. Top Justice Department officials sanctioned torture. An August 2002 memo signed by Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee argued that torturing suspected terrorists in captivity "may be justified" and international laws against interrogation "may be unconstitutional if applied to interrogations." Like the Pentagon memo it both authorized torture and defined it narrowly. Bybee wrote that for something to be considered torture it "must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death." (Washington Post)

3. Top White House officials sanctioned torture. In January 2002, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales wrote a memo to the President arguing that the threat of terrorism "renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners." Responding to a draft of the memo, Secretary of State Colin Powell argued that dropping the protection of the Geneva Conventions for certain prisoners, as Gonzales suggested would "reverse over a century of U.S. policy and practice." But Gonzales did not change his recommendation to the President. (Newsweek)

Why They're Wrong:

1. Defenders of the administration argued that these memos applied to al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners and not Iraqis who were subject to the abuse at Abu Ghraib. But the treatment of alleged members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, most of whom where held in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, had a profound impact on the treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib. In fact, the unit in charge of Abu Ghraib was "run by a military intelligence unit that brought to Iraq aggressive rules and procedures it developed for conflict in Afghanistan." (New York Times)

2. Defenders of the administration also argue that the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison - and potentially other locations - were the deeds of a few rogue soldiers. But the military is a hierarchy. The actions of soldiers on the ground reflects guidelines that emanate from the top.

A Better Idea:

The administration should release all relevant guidelines, orders, directives and other documents related to the treatment of prisoners by the military - a step they refuse to take. (Washington Post)