Friday, September 22, 2006

Handmaidens to torture

Much is being said about Democrats' abysmal failure in stopping the White House's plans to proceed with torturing people suspected of being terrorists, and for good reason. As Digby (in a typically definitive take) points out, the supposed forces of liberalism have simply been rolled by the machinations of the Bush administration.

But equally abysmal has been the performance of the press in making clear to the American public just what is going on here -- from the get-go. Indeed, for the most part, the press has looked the other way, burying stories that should have been atop their front pages, and treating what should have been monstrous scandals as simply politics-as-usual.

It began, in reality, back in 2002, with the abuse of prisoners in Afghanistan. Eric Umansky in Columbia Journalism Review has an in-depth look at how the story was handled by the press, particularly the New York Times, which broke the story -- and then buried it:
Gall filed a story, on February 5, 2003, about the deaths of Dilawar and another detainee. It sat for a month, finally appearing two weeks before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. "I very rarely have to wait long for a story to run," says Gall. "If it's an investigation, occasionally as long as a week."

Gall's story, it turns out, had been at the center of an editorial fight. Her piece was "the real deal. It referred to a homicide. Detainees had been killed in custody. I mean, you can't get much clearer than that," remembers Roger Cohen, then the Times's foreign editor. "I pitched it, I don't know, four times at page-one meetings, with increasing urgency and frustration. I laid awake at night over this story. And I don't fully understand to this day what happened. It was a really scarring thing. My single greatest frustration as foreign editor was my inability to get that story on page one."

Doug Frantz, then the Times's investigative editor and now the managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, says Howell Raines, then the Times's top editor, and his underlings "insisted that it was improbable; it was just hard to get their mind around. They told Roger to send Carlotta out for more reporting, which she did. Then Roger came back and pitched the story repeatedly. It's very unusual for an editor to continue to push a story after the powers that be make it clear they’re not interested. Roger, to his credit, pushed." (Howell Raines declined requests for comment.)

"Compare Judy Miller's WMD stories to Carlotta's story," says Frantz. "On a scale of one to ten, Carlotta's story was nailed down to ten. And if it had run on the front page, it would have sent a strong signal not just to the Bush administration but to other news organizations."

Instead, the story ran on page fourteen under the headline "U.S.Military Investigating Death of Afghan in Custody." (It later became clear that the investigation began only as a result of Gall's digging.)

I raised the issue back in March of 2003 when the buried Times report first was published. I quoted University of Washington law professor Joan Fitzpatrick (who, tragically, died in an apparent suicide two months later), a widely respected expert in international humanitarian law.

Fitzpatrick, in fact, sent a letter to the Times:
The "interrogation" techniques described in "U.S. Military Investigating Death of Afghan in Custody" (March 4, 2003, A14) violate basic norms of international humanitarian law. The Geneva Conventions require humane treatment of all prisoners, whether POWs or "unlawful combatants," and regardless of the nature of the conflict. All acts of violence or intimidation, outrages upon personal dignity, and humiliating and degrading treatment are strictly forbidden. Does the Department of Defense argue that chaining naked prisoners to the ceiling, in freezing weather, and kicking them to keep them awake for days on end, are practices consistent with the Geneva Conventions? Is the DOD prepared to tolerate this treatment of American POWs in the Iraq war?

These practices also violate human rights treaties to which the United States is a party, specifically the prohibitions on torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The United States may not transfer Al Qaeda suspects to other states to facilitate their torture; that too is a violation. Moreover, there is no state on earth "that does not have legal restrictions against torture" ("Questioning of Accused Expected to Be Human, Legal and Aggressive", March 4, 2003, A13). The prohibition on torture is a peremptory norm of customary international law binding on all nations. The torturer is the enemy of all mankind.

If President Bush has commanded these practices, he has committed serious international crimes and crimes against the laws of the United States that are impeachable offenses. Congress must investigate immediately.

Secretary Rumsfeld last Friday again revealed his complete ignorance of the laws of war by suggesting that Iraqi POWs could be tried before military commissions. They may be tried only by court martial, under rules identical to those applicable to U.S. forces. As Bush and Rumsfeld are poised to launch a major war in Iraq, the world stands appalled by their utter disregard for the most fundamental norms of humanity in wartime. Heaven help our "enemies" and our own soldiers.

The Times, of course, never ran her letter.

And when the abuses at Abu Ghraib were revealed, the press utterly failed to examine just how far up the chain of command these abuses originated -- even though there was a trail of evidence leading right up to the top. Certainly there are indications that not just Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, but also former Solicitor General Ted Olson, the White House's legal advocate, were directly involved.

What happened instead was that the press, as a general rule, looked the other way and swallowed whole the administration spin that the problem was consigned to a "few bad apples. As Umansky goes on to explain:
But just as sweeping attacks against "the media" are too reductive, so too are plaudits. And when the record on torture coverage is examined in detail, an ambiguous picture emerges: in the post-9/11 days, some reporters offered detailed accusations and reports of abuse and torture, only to be met with skepticism by their own editors. Stories were buried, played down, or ignored -- a reluctance that is much diminished but still bubbles up with regard to the culpability of policymakers.

So now we are faced, as Marty Lederman has detailed at Balkinization, with the prospect of becoming the first nation to allow violations of the Geneva Conventions:
It only takes 30 seconds or so to see that the Senators have capitulated entirely, that the U.S. will hereafter violate the Geneva Conventions by engaging in Cold Cell, Long Time Standing, etc., and that there will be very little pretense about it. In addition to the elimination of habeas rights in section 6, the bill would delegate to the President the authority to interpret "the meaning and application of the Geneva Conventions" "for the United States," except that the bill itself would define certain "grave breaches" of Common Article 3 to be war crimes.

... And then, for good measure -- and this is perhaps the worst part of the bill, for purposes going far beyond the questions of torture and interrogation -- section 7 would preclude courts altogether from ever interpreting the Geneva Conventions -- any part of them -- by providing that "no person may invoke the Geneva Conventions or any protocols thereto in any habeas or civil action or proceeding to which the United States, or a current or former officer, employee, member of the Armed Forces, or other agent of the United States, is a party as a source of rights, in any court of the United States or its States or territories."

Now, too late, the press is starting to recognize the moral abyss into which the Bush administration is leading the nation. The Washington Post editorial today says:
Mr. Bush wanted Congress to formally approve these practices and to declare them consistent with the Geneva Conventions. It will not. But it will not stop him either, if the legislation is passed in the form agreed on yesterday. Mr. Bush will go down in history for his embrace of torture and bear responsibility for the enormous damage that has caused.

And then there was the New York Times editorial today:
The deal does next to nothing to stop the president from reinterpreting the Geneva Conventions. While the White House agreed to a list of "grave breaches" of the conventions that could be prosecuted as war crimes, it stipulated that the president could decide on his own what actions might be a lesser breach of the Geneva Conventions and what interrogation techniques he considered permissible. It's not clear how much the public will ultimately learn about those decisions.

Why not? Well, for answers, we can look to the "nation's paper of record" and its fellow lapdogs in the nation's press.

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