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22 AUGUST 2014

 

More Important Than Boxing: 2007




By Thomas Hauser

We don’t stop being citizens when we enter the world of sports. With that in mind, once a year I use this space to address issues that are more important than boxing.

Democracy should be practiced, not just celebrated. One of the most troubling aspects of George Bush’s tenure in office has been his assault on the judicial underpinnings of American democracy. Despite his rhetoric, Mr. Bush has dishonored the fundamental traditions of American justice. Anyone who isn’t outraged at what he has done isn’t paying attention.

U.S. Attorneys who refuse to conduct criminal investigations in accord with political commands from the White House have been removed from office.

Lewis “Scooter” Libby (Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff) was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice after lying to federal agents and to a grand jury which was investigating the leak of the name of a CIA operative. He was sentenced to thirty months in prison; but before he could be incarcerated, Mr. Bush commuted his sentence. The commutation had all the earmarks of buying Libby’s silence. Thanks to the president, Mr. Libby (who commited a crime that bears directly on national security) served less time in jail than Paris Hilton.

But the most grotesque aspect of the Bush Administration’s distortion of justice has been its repeated violation of constitutional rights and reliance upon torture as a tool in the “war on terror.”

There was a time when the United States stood as a beacon of hope for the proposition that human rights are deserving of respect. Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 (to which the U.S. is a signatory) prohibits, “mutilation, cruel treatment, and torture” in addition to the “humiliating and degrading treatment” of detainees. In autumn 2007, the United States Supreme Court ruled that military detainees in the “war on terror” must be treated in accord with the Geneva Conventions. In response, Mr. Bush issued an executive order of dubious legality that simply reclassified the detainees.

The Bush Administration now takes the position that detainees can be held indefinitely and do not have a right to contest their detention in federal court or before another neutral decision-maker. Suspects are imprisoned in undisclosed locations without counsel or notification to their families. Many of them are interrogated in secret prisons in Afghanistan, Thailand, and Eastern Europe, where their captors rely on interrogation techniques developed by the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the former Soviet Union. These techniques include waterboarding, sleep deprivation, prolonged exposure to extreme temperatures, and beatings.

The Bush Administration’s guidelines for officially-sanctioned torture allow for everything but “extreme acts causing severe pain of the sort that accompanies serious physical injury leading to death or organ failure.” In other words, it’s permissible to break someone’s leg with a crowbar. That might be an “extreme act causing severe pain of the sort that accompanies serious physical injury” but it wouldn’t necessarily “lead to death or organ failure.”

One can make a rational argument in support of the use of torture in certain limited, clearly-defined, closely-regulated instances. Suppose, for example, the authorities know that a nuclear weapon is about to be detonated on American soil and believe that a detainee has information which, if revealed, could preclude the carnage? The dialogue regarding a hypothetical of this nature would be similar in many respects to the debate over capital punishment.

The argument against capital punishment is twofold: (1) there are those who think that it debases any society that employs it; and (2) an innocent person might be executed. I personally believe that there are instances when capital punishment is warranted. Many people take a contrary view. But under American law (at least, in theory), there is a clearly-defined process that must be followed before a death penalty is administered.

By contrast, under present circumstances, the utilization of torture by our government appears to be arbitrary. Not only does it debase our society; there is also a legitimate fear that innocent people are being tortured and killed.

It would be comforting to think that the men and women responsible for interrogating detainees in the “war on terror” are capable operatives with sound judgment. But what we know about the Bush Administration offers scant hope in that regard.

The centerpiece of the “war on terror” has been the invasion of Iraq. The rationale for the invasion keeps changing. First, we invaded Iraq because Saddam Hussein was purportedly building weapons of mass destruction. When that charge proved false, the war became about “bringing freedom to the Iraqi people.” By that logic, we should also invade China to bring freedom to the Chinese people. Now, we’re implored to “stay the course” in Iraq because it’s important to stay the course.

There will be no "victory" for the United States in Iraq. Iraq barely functions as a country anymore. It’s a bloody conglomeration of local militias, warlords, terrorists, the U.S. military, the Iraqi military, and other disparate forces. The only remaining questions are how many more lives will be lost, how much more money will it cost, and how bad the damage to our longterm interests and standing in the international community will be before we withdraw.


That was made clear by General Ricardo Sanchez (former commander of American forces in Iraq), who told a gathering of military reporters last month that the Bush Administration’s handling of the war was based on “a catastophically flawed, unrealistically optimistic war plan that has led to a nightmare with no end in sight. There has been,” General Sanchez said, “a glaring and unfortunate display of incompetent strategic leadership” by leaders who have been “derelict in their duties” and guilty of a “lust for power.”

The following is a sampling of mishaps (characterized by total incompetence) that have come to light since I wrote about the invasion of Iraq in this forum one year ago:

* The Bush Administration flew nearly $12 billion in shrink-wrapped $100 bills into Iraq and distributed the cash with inadequate controls over who was receiving it and how it was spent. The cash weighed 363 tons and was sent to Baghdad for disbursement to Iraqi ministries and U.S. contractors. A good portion of it was retained for private personal use or fell into the hands of terrorists. As Henry Waxman (chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform) queried, " Who in their right mind would send 363 tons of cash into a war zone?"

* The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction reported to Congress that only 12,000 of the 500,000 weapons given to the Iraqi Ministries of Defense and Interior by our government since the invasion were being properly tracked. In other words, hundreds of thousands of weapons (including grenade launchers, machine guns, and assault rifles) could be anywhere and in anyone’s hands. Thereafter, in one of its last acts, the Republican-controlled 109th Congress passed (and George Bush signed) a military authorization bill that terminated the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.

* The Bush Administration launched a website called "Operation Iraqi Freedom Document Portal" to propagate the argument that Saddam Hussein had, in fact, been planning to build weapons of mass destruction. The launch came over the objection of Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte. The site was closed in November 2006 after International Atomic Energy Agency officials complained that the documents on it went beyond anything else that was publicly available in constituting a basic guide to building an atomic bomb.

In sum, the Bush Administration has an extensive record of mismanaging the “war on terror.” Thus the question: “How many innocent people have been tortured and killed by our government?”

We’ll never know, because the hidden nature of the interrogations and torture keep “bad decisions” from coming to light.

George Bush should not have been put in the position of responsibility and power that he has abused for almost seven years. But rather than dwell on the past, let’s give practical application to the issues raised by this article. Why not subject the Bush administration to the same standard of “justice” that it has applied to others?

On July 9, 2007, George Bush invoked a claim of “executive privilege” in response to requests for information by two Congressional committees that were investigating the firing of nine U.S. Attorneys. More specifically, the White House refused to comply with subpoenas for relevant documents and blocked two presidential aides with knowledge related to the firings from testifying before Congress.

Why bother with subpoenas and lengthy court proceedings? Bring former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez before Congress and beat the information out of him.

Come to think of it; Congress could impeach and convict the president and vice president using the same process. Arrest Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. Hold them incommunicato in a secret prison without access to a lawyer. The pre-trial discovery would be enlightening. One can only begin to imagine the wrongdoing that would be revealed after waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and brutal beatings. The Bush Administration says that these interrogation techniques are reserved for “high value” detainees. But who’s more “high value” that George Bush and Dick Cheney? We might even get some photographs of the president and vice president nude on their hands and knees, each one with a dog collar around his neck and a woman soldier holding the leash.

The impeachment trial would be conducted in secret. As for the sentence; given Dick Cheney’s much-publicized heart condition, he probably wouldn’t make it that far. But Mr. Bush seems to be in pretty good shape. Life imprisonment or the death penalty? What do you think?

Some bleeding-heart liberals and card-carrying members of the American Civil Liberties Union might find fault with interrogation and a trial of this nature. But I’m sure that patriotic Americans wouldn’t object.

PS: Words like “torture” and “beating” have become so common in usage that we tend to read through them. They sanitize the violence. So let’s think in terms of you, the reader. An interrogator punches you flush on the tip of your nose, flattening it against your face. You still haven’t told him what he wants to know. You might not even know it; but he thinks you do. Or maybe he’s just a sadistic bastard. So he shoves slivers of metal beneath your fingertips.

Hey; as Donald Rumsfeld blithely said about the mounting death toll in iraq: “Stuff happens.”


Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com


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