Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Quaint provisions

The other day, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee and the topic of Maher Arar (shown at left, with his daughter) came up. In case you haven't heard his story, here's a quick summary courtesy of Wikipedia:
Maher Arar is a Syrian-born Canadian software engineer. On 26 September 2002, during a stopover in New York en route from Tunis to Montreal, Arar was detained by the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service who may have been acting upon false and misleading information supplied by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Despite carrying a Canadian passport, he was deported to Syria in accordance with a U.S. policy known as "extraordinary rendition." Arar was held in solitary confinement in a Syrian prison where he was regularly tortured for almost a year, until his eventual release and return to Canada in October 2003.
Appearing before the Committee, Gonzales wouldn't explain why the U.S. detained Arar and then sent him to Syria instead of to Canada, where he and his family lived. The chair of the Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy (D.-Vermont) delivered a blistering rebuke to Gonzales (captured on YouTube). Here's an excerpt:
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Attorney General, I’m sorry. I don't mean to treat this lightly. We knew damn well if he went to Canada, he wouldn't be tortured. He’d be held; he’d be investigated. We also knew damn well if he went to Syria, he would be tortured. And it's beneath the dignity of this country, a country that has always been a beacon of human rights, to send somebody to another country to be tortured. You know and I know that has happened a number of times in the past five years by this country.

It is a black mark on us. It has brought about the condemnation of some of our closest and best allies. They have made those comments both publicly and privately to the President of the United States and others. And it is easy for us to sit here comfortably in this room, knowing that we're not going to be sent off to another country to be tortured, to treat it as though -- well, Attorney General Ashcroft said, “We’ve got assurances,” though assurances from a country that we also say now, “Oh, we can't talk to them because we can't take their word for anything.”

ALBERTO GONZALES: Well, Senator, I dis--

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: I’m somewhat upset.

ALBERTO GONZALES: Yes, sir. I can tell. But before you get more upset, perhaps you should wait to receive the briefing --


ALBERTO GONZALES: I’m hoping that we can get you the information next week.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Well, Attorney General, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll meet you halfway on this. I’ll wait next week for that briefing. If we don't get it, I guarantee you there will be another hearing on this issue. Canadians have been our closest allies, longest unguarded frontier in the world. They are justifiably upset. They are wondering what's happened to us. They are wondering what's happened to us. Now, you know and I know we are a country with a great, great tradition of protecting people's individual liberties and rights. You take an oath of office to do that. I take an oath of office to do that. I believe in my basic core nature in that.
Leahy's eloquence and moral indignation are compelling, and I wonder if his words won't be remembered for years to come. Gonzales has a lot to answer for. In fact this story begins years before Arar was detained.

The roots of torture

A Newsweek article from October of last year recounts Washington's growing infatuation with torture following 9/11, referring to it as "the road to Abu Ghraib". The article cites a January 2002 memo from then-White House Counsel Gonzales to President Bush:
"As you have said, the war against terrorism is a new kind of war," Gonzales wrote to Bush. "The nature of the new war places a —high premium on other factors, such as the ability to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities against American civilians." Gonzales concluded in stark terms: "In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions."
Gonzales' cynical contempt for the "quaint provisions" of human rights conventions is instructive. Amnesty International describes the situation in this way:
The reality is that since September 2001, the US government has sought to rewrite the rules banning torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment -- and Guantánamo has been a testing ground for these new rules. Interrogation techniques developed for use in Afghanistan and Guantánamo subsequently emerged in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where torture was exposed in photos that shocked the world.
The US administration's preferred version of events is that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were an unfortunate accident. But Amnesty International notes that:
On 7 February 2002, President Bush signed a memorandum confirming that Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions would not apply to any Taleban or al-Qa’ida detainee. This included all the detainees sent to Guantánamo. Common Article 3 prohibits torture, cruel treatment and "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment." President Bush had been advised that not applying common Article 3 would protect US interrogators from prosecutions for war crimes under the USA’s War Crimes Act.

Six months later a Justice Department memorandum advised that the President could override the prohibition on torture; that interrogators could cause a great deal of pain before crossing the threshold to torture; and that there were a wide range of acts that might amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment but would not amount to torture.
What sort of treatment are we talking about?
The euphemistically termed "stress and duress" techniques that emerged in Guantánamo and US detention facilities elsewhere included forced standing and crouching, sleep deprivation, subjection to noise, prolonged isolation, and hooding. Some techniques, such as the use of dogs, forced nudity, forcible shaving, sexual humiliation by female interrogators, and removal of religious items, have discriminatory undertones.
It strains credulity to imagine how this kind of treatment could be considered acceptable by civilized society. But as we know all too well, it's not so difficult to put a spell on the body politic.

The voice from the tower

All you need is to get the white right wizard, in this case Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, to speak from the (ivory) tower. In his 2001 opinion piece published in the LA Times, titled "Is There a Torturous Road to Justice?", Dershowitz wrote:
I have no doubt that if an actual ticking bomb situation were to arise, our law enforcement authorities would torture. The real debate is whether such torture should take place outside of our legal system or within it. The answer to this seems clear: If we are to have torture, it should be authorized by the law.
When I first heard of Dershowitz's outrageous proposal, I simply couldn't understand why he wasn't being treated as a pariah by civilized society. Certainly his silver tongue had the power to enchant, but weren't his conclusions utterly nauseating? Could it be that the glittery garb of his position at the esteemed Harvard Law School was cloaking the loathsome stuff underneath? (For a well-written, albeit brief, analysis of Dershowitz's nonsense, see Seth Finkelstein's article "Alan Dershowitz's Tortuous Torturous Argument".)

A choice policy

I leave you with the following excerpt from the same Amnesty International report quoted earlier:
President Bush’s 7 February 2002 memorandum, which has not been withdrawn, states that detainees would be treated humanely, "including those who are not legally entitled to such treatment." There are no such detainees. All detainees, everywhere, have the right to be free from torture or other ill-treatment. This is not a policy choice. It is a legal obligation on all governments.
Update 24-Jan-2007: My brother pointed me to an article in today's San Francisco Chronicle: "Gonzales says the Constitution doesn't guarantee habeas corpus." If this doesn't give you the willies, I don't know what will.

Update 27-Jan-2007: Thursday's Globe & Mail had an editorial about the U.S. government's continuing refusal to allow Maher Arar to enter that country. The editorial notes that:
... as a Canadian inquiry concluded last September, there was no good reason to think [Arar] was any kind of threat. Canadian officials have now concluded the secret U.S. files add up to nothing. Yet [U.S.-ambassador-to-Canada David] Wilkins says it is a "little presumptuous" to say Mr. Arar should get his livelihood back ...
(Travel to the U.S. is an important part of Maher Arar's work in computer networking.) As the first line in the editorial opines, "If nothing else ... Wilkins gets top marks for gall."

Yesterday, in a letter to Maher Arar, Canada's Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, wrote:
On behalf of the government of Canada, I wish to apologize to you ... and your family for any role that Canadian officials may have played in the terrible ordeal that all of you experienced in 2002-2003.
About time.

Update 28-Jan-2007: Amnesty International are campaigning to Close Guantánamo. It's time to stand up for the "quaint provisions" of human rights for all!

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Blogger ken said...

An excellent article.
By the way the Canadian cabinet minister in charge of security Stockwell Day has seen the US evidence that supposedly was the basis for Arar's rendition. He claims that there is nothing in it to change his mind and that Arar in his opinion is no security threat.
Day had seen this evidence before Canada received a letter from Chertoff and GOnzales that informed him that they had reviewed the case and decided to keep Arar on the watch list based on US evidence. This letter was a week old. Gonzales did not reveal he had written this letter at the Leahy hearings. This guy really needs a dressing down.
THe US government no doubt will not admit any mistakes as long as there is any faint hope that Arar's suit against the US govt. might proceed. Admitting mistakes would weaken their case.
If you havent seen the suit a synopsis is available at my website
kenthink7.blogspot.com or other sources.

6:57 AM, January 24, 2007  
Anonymous EK Hornbeck said...

I had some contact with Senator Leahy's office in a previous life.

The right wing nutters call him "Leaky Leahy" for his willingness to expose injustice.

Glad to see he hasn't given in to the Bushionian zeitgeist!

PS -- Nick --when is the next time I can beat you at trivial pursuit?! :-)

9:07 PM, January 25, 2007  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

Thanks, Ken. You know, whenever there's a lawsuit pending or in process, it seems that equivocation is the order of the day. Does it have to be this way?? (By the way, I normally refrain from doubling question marks or exclamation marks, but I wanted to express my frustration here!)

Good to hear from you, E.K. Reading about "Leaky Leahy" made me think about why leaks are often a good thing. Trying to formulate a pithy remark, I thought of "Tyranny loves secrecy!" But then I thought that probably wasn't original. Sure enough, a Google search revealed that others have already used it. I did find another version, "Secrecy is the keystone of all tyranny," from none other than science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein (in "Revolt in 2100").

And then things got kind of interesting. You see, I found the Heinlein quote on the Wikipedia page for Wikileaks. Check it out!

12:12 AM, January 28, 2007  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

Oh, and by the way, E.K. — I would have won that game!

12:13 AM, January 28, 2007  

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