A Question of Human Dignity

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, February 14, 2008; 1:36 PM

Who are we as a nation? Are we who we used to be? Did one terrorist attack really change all that? Can it be changed back?

Those, at heart, are the questions raised by the Senate's passage yesterday of a bill that would ban harsh interrogation tactics used by the CIA -- a bill already passed by the House, and a bill President Bush has vowed to veto.

The debate is not just about waterboarding. It's about whether other tactics -- such as prolonged exposure to freezing temperatures, forced nudity, sexual humiliation, mock executions, the use of attack dogs, the withholding of food, water and medical care and the application of electric shocks -- should be part of our official interrogation toolkit.

Whether you call them torture or not, they are undeniably cruel. They are undeniable assaults on human dignity.

They are all prohibited by the Army Field Manual, which covers all military interrogations. They are all off limits to the FBI. Now Congress wants the CIA to adhere to the same restrictions.

But Bush says no.

The propagation of our values has long been a hallmark of American foreign policy. Chief among those values has been respect for human dignity. But the message we've been sending lately is altogether different. How can we tell other countries to respect human dignity when we have made it optional for our own government? When our official policy is that the ends justify the means?

The Coverage

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "In a 51 to 45 vote, the Senate approved an intelligence bill that limits the CIA to using 19 less-aggressive interrogation tactics outlined in a U.S. Army Field Manual. The measure would effectively ban the use of simulated drowning, temperature extremes and other harsh tactics that the CIA used on al-Qaeda prisoners after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks."

David M. Herszenhorn writes in the New York Times: "The White House again said Mr. Bush intended to veto the bill, on the ground that it would interfere with successful intelligence gathering. . . .

"Democratic supporters of the measure hailed its passage and immediately challenged Mr. Bush to veto it, saying that to do so would effectively endorse torture. . . .

"The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, said: 'We are taking an important step toward restoring our moral leadership in the world. It is now up to the president to show his own moral leadership and sign this bill into law.'"

Fanny Carrier writes for AFP: "'Torture is a defining issue, and it is clear that under the Bush administration, we have lost our way,' said Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy.

"'By applying the Field Manual's standards to all US government interrogations, Congress will bring America back from the brink -- back to our values, back to basic decency, back to the rule of law,' he said."

Kerry Sheridan reports for the Associated Press that White House Press Secretary Dana Perino reiterated this morning that Bush will veto the bill.

"Today with this bill that they are sending to us they would basically repeal the terrorist interrogation program in favor of something that will definitely weaken our ability to protect the country," Perino said.

Meanwhile, the administration is apparently backpedaling from its insistence just last week that additional waterboarding could be approved by the president, depending on the circumstances.

Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press: "A senior Justice Department official says laws and other limits enacted since three terrorism suspects were waterboarded has eliminated the technique from what is now legally allowed, going a step beyond what CIA Director Michael Hayden has said.

"'The set of interrogation methods authorized for current use is narrower than before, and it does not today include waterboarding,' Steven G. Bradbury, acting head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, says in remarks prepared for his appearance Thursday before the House Judiciary Constitution subcommittee.

"'There has been no determination by the Justice Department that the use of waterboarding, under any circumstances, would be lawful under current law,' he said. It is the first time the department has expressed such an opinion publicly."

It's kind of odd coming from Bradbury. As the New York Times reported in October, it was Bradbury who in 2005 signed secret legal memos that gave the CIA "explicit authorization to barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics, including head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures."

Opinion Watch

Rosa Brooks writes in her Los Angeles Times opinion column: "[H]ere's what I don't get. Bush has less than a year left in office. His approval ratings are already abysmally low. Why is he determined to compound his problems by going down in history as the first president to openly order and justify torture? Is this really the legacy he wants to leave behind?

"The task for the next president, Democrat or Republican, is clear. Very soon after taking office, our next president needs to lay this monster to rest by unambiguously repudiating waterboarding and all forms of torture.

"That's the easy part of the next president's task, though. The hard part? Prying the thumbscrews out of the Bush administration's cold, dead hands."

Nicholas D. Kristof, in his New York Times opinion column, offers the story of Sami al-Hajj, an al-Jazeera cameraman being held in Guantanamo, as an example of the inhumanity that continues there to this day.

"Most Americans, including myself, originally gave President Bush the benefit of the doubt and assumed that the inmates truly were 'the worst of the worst.' But evidence has grown that many are simply the unluckiest of the unluckiest."

He concludes: "To stand against torture and arbitrary detention is not to be squeamish. It is to be civilized."


And here's an astonishing way of looking at torture, from none other than Attorney General Michael Mukasey: The three men who were waterboarded, he said yesterday, brought it upon themselves.

NPR's Ari Shapiro spoke to Mukasey yesterday.

Shapiro: "Mukasey quoted CIA director Michael Hayden's statement that out of a large number of terrorism detainees, 100 were subjected to coercive interrogation techniques."

Mukasey: "And of those, three were waterboarded. So these are people who self-select for their ability to resist the technique."

FISA Watch

Might Bush's fearmongering finally have lost its effectiveness?

Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times: "Broad spying powers temporarily approved by Congress in August appear likely to lapse this week after a daylong game of chicken on Wednesday between the White House and House Democrats produced no clear resolution. . . .

"House Democratic leaders tried to obtain a 21-day reprieve to allow more time to negotiate before the temporary measure expires on Friday night. But the proposal was defeated in the face of opposition from liberals who are against the surveillance plan and conservatives who favor it.

"House Democrats now say they may simply let the deadline pass without acting on the Senate plan. . . .

"The lapsing of the deadline would have little practical effect on intelligence gathering. Intelligence officials would be able to intercept communications from Qaeda members or other identified terrorist groups for a year after the initial eavesdropping authorization for that particular group.

"If a new terrorist group is identified after Saturday, intelligence officials would not be able to use the broadened eavesdropping authority. They would be able to seek a warrant under the more restrictive standards in place for three decades through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act."

What's remarkable is that this happened just a day after the Democratic-controlled Senate gave Bush everything he asked for (see yesterday's column, Fear Rules the Day) and just hours after Bush let loose with some of his most inflamed rhetoric in a long time.

As Lichtblau puts it: "Mr. Bush accused the Democratic-led House of needlessly prolonging the debate at the expense of the country's safety."

"'At this moment,' he said, 'somewhere in the world terrorists are planning new attacks on our country. Their goal is to bring destruction to our shores that will make Sept. 11 pale by comparison.'

"To stop an attack, he urged, Congress must act immediately to strengthen the eavesdropping."

Editorial Watch

The editorial boards are calling Bush's bluff -- and his bluster.

The USA Today editorial board writes: "President Bush is rarely as vivid about the specter of terrorism as he is when he's trying to stampede Congress into doing something it should think twice about. On Wednesday, he demanded quick passage of a flawed surveillance measure because 'terrorists are planning attacks on our country ... that will make Sept. 11 pale by comparison.'

"Whoa. There's little dispute that terrorists want to strike the United States in horrific ways, or that the government should aggressively hunt them down and stop them. But there's a legitimate debate over how much of Americans' hard-won civil liberties it's necessary to trade away to fight and win, and how much to curtail the traditional role of judges in overseeing wiretapping that involves Americans. The president has frequently gotten this trade-off wrong, and he's doing it again. . . .

"Bush warns that if phone companies don't get immunity, they'll never cooperate again. That's a concern, but it's doubtful that companies would rebuff lawful requests. Of greater concern is the message that illegal activity is acceptable and will be forgiven. While companies that thought they were acting patriotically don't deserve to be driven into bankruptcy, blanket immunity seems premature, particularly because the administration has stonewalled most requests for documents that would show what they did.

"Bush is pressing the House to accept the Senate bill and refusing to temporarily extend the current law, which expires on Saturday. That's irresponsible. The House and Senate need time to negotiate their differences because the House has no telecom immunity provision. Bush's implication that expiration of the law would expose the nation to terrorist danger is worse than disingenuous: The eavesdropping authorizations under the law continue for a year. Crucial decisions about civil liberties in an age of terror shouldn't be driven by fear-mongering."

The Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board writes: "Using scare tactics is no way to work out how the nation should craft the spying tools needed in its fight to detect and thwart terrorist attacks. . . .

"Whatever the actual threat, Bush is trying to stampede Congress - particularly, Democrats. He's pressuring them to approve a misguided anti-terrorism law out of the fear that they'll be seen by American voters as weak on national security. It's an old strategy, and one that meek Democrats continue to swallow.

"No one questions the need for antiterror agents to spy on the nation's enemies. But it should be done with privacy safeguards and accountability. That's why the House shouldn't cave to fear."

The Washington Post editorial board writes: "Mr. Bush's pass-it-now-or-the-terrorists-will-win rhetoric is overheated fearmongering. He should agree to a second extension, which would allow intelligence agencies to operate under the existing law. The fact is that even if the law is permitted to expire Saturday, as scheduled, the orders under which surveillance is being conducted would remain in place. Any new orders could be issued by the FISA court, and without the backlog that had slowed the court's operations before the Protect America Act was passed last August. Allowing legislators a few more weeks to try to resolve differences presents no evident threat to U.S. security. A few more weeks could even produce a better bill."

Contempt Watch

Alexander Bolton writes in The Hill: "The House will vote Thursday on holding White House chief of staff Josh Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers in contempt of Congress. . . .

"Democratic leaders' decision to hold a vote follows repeated efforts by Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) to obtain information related to the firing of several United States attorneys. White House officials have refused to allow Bolten and Miers to testify before his committee. . . .

"Republicans excoriated the decision to have an acrimonious debate only a day after Republican and Democratic leaders appeared together Wednesday at the White House to celebrate the signing of a bipartisan economic stimulus package."

Here's what Conyers had to say yesterday: "[D]espite duly issued subpoenas, the White House has determined that it has the unilateral authority to prevent Mr. Bolten from providing us with a single piece of paper and to prevent Ms. Miers from even showing up at a Committee hearing.

"If the executive branch can disregard Congressional subpoenas in this way, we no longer have a system of checks and balances. That is the cornerstone of our democracy, and it is our bipartisan responsibility to protect it."

Conyers also asked for authorization to pursue a civil suit. "Under the contempt statute, the U.S. Attorney 'shall' refer the contempt citation to a grand jury for action after receiving it from the Speaker. Unfortunately, only last week Attorney General Mukasey testified before our Committee that he is inclined to follow the view of the White House and not enforce contempt despite the clear statutory command.

"In light of that, the privileged resolution introduced today follows the suggestion first made by former Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner last year and authorizes the House general counsel to file a civil suit to enforce the subpoenas. That way, if the Administration refuses to enforce the contempt finding, we can take action in the courts to vindicate Congress' authority."

The Politico's John Bresnahan has the official White House reaction: "'The American people will find it baffling that on a day that House leaders are trying to put off passing critical legislation to keep us safer from the threat of foreign terrorists overseas, they are spending scarce time to become the first Congress in history to bring contempt charges against a president's chief of staff and lawyer,' White House spokeswoman Dana Perino wrote in an e-mail.

"'If the House had nothing better to do, this futile partisan act would be a waste of time,' she said. 'Unbelievably, it is being considered in place of legislation to make us safer, address concerns in the housing market, improve health care conditions for our veterans, reauthorize No Child Left Behind or open new overseas markets for U.S. goods and services, among other bills. The 'people's House' should reflect the priorities of the American people, not the fantasies of left-wing bloggers.'"

The New York Times editorial board writes: "The House . . . needs to stop procrastinating and vote to hold witnesses in contempt for refusing to testify in the wider scandal. . . .

"The stakes are high. There are people in jail today, including a former governor of Alabama, who have raised credible charges that they were put there for political reasons. Congress's constitutionally guaranteed powers are also at risk. If Congress fails to enforce its own subpoenas, it would effectively be ceding its subpoena power. It would also be giving its tacit consent to the dangerous idea of an imperial president -- above the law and beyond the reach of checks and balances.

"The founders did not want that when they wrote the Constitution, and the voters who elected this Congress do not want it today."

State Secrets Watch

Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press: "In a new challenge to President Bush's use of executive power, Senate Democrats want to make the government produce evidence for a judge to review when it claims disclosing such information would endanger national security.

"The Senate Judiciary Committee's chairman is developing legislation aimed at reining in the administration's use of a state secrets privilege to argue for dismissing cases that might reveal misconduct.

"Democrats contend the administration has used that tactic in cases involving suspected terrorists interrogated overseas and in the president's secretive surveillance program.

"'It has taken a legal doctrine that was intended to protect sensitive national security information and seems to be using it to evade accountability for its own misdeeds,' the chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Wednesday."

Ben Wizner writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed: "Of the myriad tactics the Bush administration uses to prevent oversight of its controversial anti-terror policies, none has been more successful, or more far-reaching, than the state secrets privilege. On Wednesday, the Senate considered, at long last, bipartisan legislation that would place reasonable limits on the executive branch's use of the privilege to terminate lawsuits on dubious grounds. But for some -- like my client, Khaled El-Masri, who was mistakenly kidnapped, imprisoned and tortured by the CIA -- Congress' interest, though welcome, comes too late. . . .

"El-Masri, a German citizen, was forcibly abducted while on holiday in Macedonia, detained incommunicado, handed over to the CIA, then beaten, drugged and transported to a secret prison in Afghanistan for harsh interrogation. Five months after his abduction -- long after the CIA realized its mistake -- El-Masri was deposited at night on a hill in Albania.

"El-Masri's ordeal received front-page media coverage throughout the world and has been the subject of criminal and intergovernmental investigations in Europe. His allegations are supported by eyewitness testimony and physical evidence. Nonetheless, when we brought suit against former CIA Director George Tenet and others seeking compensation for the brutal treatment of El-Masri, the administration insisted the case be dismissed because any litigation of the claims would reveal state secrets. The government's argument prevailed, and the Supreme Court declined to intervene.

"So as the law stands, the U.S. can engage in torture, declare it a state secret and, by virtue of that designation alone, avoid any accountability for conduct that violates the Constitution and universal human rights guarantees. A broad range of executive misconduct has been shielded from judicial review under this doctrine."

Permanent Bases and the Abuse of Language

Skeptics contend that Bush and Vice President Cheney intend to keep military bases in Iraq permanently -- in fact, have already built several such bases. But Bush and his aides (see, for instance, yesterday's op-ed in The Post from the secretaries of state and defense) repeatedly deny any desire for permanent military bases.

So are the skeptics wrong? Or is the White House simply playing word games?

Olivier Knox of Agence France Presse asked Perino yesterday if the U.S. has any bases she would call permanent anywhere in the world. And guess what? Her answer was no.

Knox writes: "Amid a bitter dispute over U.S. bases in Iraq, the White House signaled Wednesday it does not view any U.S. military installations overseas -- except perhaps Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- as permanent.

"'The United States, where we are, where we have bases, we are there at the invitation of those countries. I'm not aware of any place in the world -- where we have a base -- that they are asking us to leave. And if they did, we would probably leave,' said spokeswoman Dana Perino.

"'Asked about Guantanamo Bay, Perino replied: 'I'm going to say that one doesn't count.' . . .

"'Perino's comments signaled that Washington does not consider any of its overseas bases to be permanent -- including the half-century presence in South Korea, or the forces stationed in Japan since World War Two.'"

In a nutshell, this means that the administration can deny any intention to keep permanent military bases in Iraq while, in fact, building and planning for what by any other name are permanent military bases.

In my Live Online yesterday, I asked readers for more examples of words or concepts that Bush and his aides use that, to paraphrase Inigo Montoya, do not mean what they want us to think they mean.

The most blatant example, of course, is torture. The official White House line is that we don't torture -- while engaging in acts most of us would call torture.

Live Online readers came up with several other examples, including "a nation of laws," "activist judges" and "strong dollar policy." In e-mails, other readers nominated "bipartisan", "surge" and "progress," as well.

EPA Watch

Speaking of the abuse of language, Felicity Barringer wrote in the New York Times last week: "A three-judge federal appeals panel in Washington struck down on Friday the Environmental Protection Agency limits on mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.

"The panel said the agency had ignored its legal obligation to require the strictest possible controls on the toxic metal or to justify an alternative approach. . . .

"The appellate ruling faulted that approach, calling it 'the logic of the Queen of Hearts, substituting E.P.A.'s desires for the plain text' of the law."

John Walke, the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Clean Air Program, blogs that "there is a prevalent strain within EPA -- fostered by but not limited to political appointees -- that approaches the responsibility of statutory interpretation with a linguistic relativism that verges on nihilism. Under this EPA school of thought and practice, words in statutes mean whatever EPA wants them to mean. While legal doctrines afford federal agencies discretion in areas where they are considered expert, for example in scientific matters, EPA abuses these doctrines in order to distort the act of reading the English language into a policy play thing. This is precisely why one sees courts resorting to rebukes that sound 'like a civics lesson by an exasperated instructor' and 'The Collected Works of Lewis Carroll' to characterize the absurdities of EPA's positions."

Stimulus Watch

Jeremy Pelofsky writes for Reuters: "President George W. Bush on Wednesday argued the 'genius' of the U.S. economy is its ability to withstand financial shocks, as he signed a bill to put $152 billion in taxpayers' hands in a bid to avoid a recession."

Sue Kirchhoff and Barbara Hagenbaugh write in USA Today: "The stimulus law signed by President Bush on Wednesday provides what he called a 'booster shot' to the economy, but the medicine might not be strong enough to ward off a recession.

"The $168 billion package of personal tax rebates and business tax cuts will likely help shore up consumer spending later this year, economists say. That could minimize the pain of a possible downturn. But it won't resolve longer-term issues bedeviling the economy, such as a free fall in home sales and prices, and a credit crunch that has persisted despite aggressive Federal Reserve interest rate cuts."

Mortgage Watch

Eliot Spitzer, the governor of New York, writes in a Washington Post op-ed that even as "predatory lending was becoming a national problem, the Bush administration looked the other way and did nothing to protect American homeowners. In fact, the government chose instead to align itself with the banks that were victimizing consumers. . . .

"When history tells the story of the subprime lending crisis and recounts its devastating effects on the lives of so many innocent homeowners, the Bush administration will not be judged favorably. The tale is still unfolding, but when the dust settles, it will be judged as a willing accomplice to the lenders who went to any lengths in their quest for profits. So willing, in fact, that it used the power of the federal government in an unprecedented assault on state legislatures, as well as on state attorneys general and anyone else on the side of consumers."

Travel Watch

Chris Reiter writes for Reuters: "The U.S. travel industry is looking forward to the end of George W. Bush's stay in the White House.

"While the weak U.S. dollar has put the United States on sale for many travelers, tough border controls and an unfriendly image of the United States abroad may have kept some travelers away. A new administration could help change that.

"'We're looked at as being extremely arrogant throughout the world, and Bush certainly contributes to that,' Michael Depatie, chief executive of boutique hotel operator Kimpton said at the Reuters Travel and Leisure Summit this week.

"Despite the falling dollar, the U.S. has lost 17 percent market share of international arrivals since the last quarter of 2001, according to Marriott International Inc, the second-largest U.S. hotel company.

"'I think you probably need not just a new occupant in the White House, but you probably need some meaningful change in visa policy to get some of that lost share back,' Arne Sorenson, Marriott's chief financial officer, told the Summit."

Cartoon Watch

Here's Stuart Carlson on Bush's tortured excuse.

And here's an animated Valentine from Dick Cheney, via Ann Telnaes.

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