As the news broke on Saturday that former President George W. Bush had abruptly canceled his scheduled appearance this week in Geneva to avoid the risk of arrest on a torture complaint, my first thought was — how humiliating, not only for Bush but, by extension, for all Americans.
However, those who might have expected Bush to be down in the mouth and sulk about the embarrassment were disabused of that notion as the TV cameras caught him and Condoleezza Rice -- his former national security adviser and Secretary of State -- in seats of honor at Sunday’s Super Bowl in Dallas.
Doomed to become America’s first better-stay-at-home former president, Bush could still take consolation in getting scarce tickets to big sports events – he also attended high-profile Texas Rangers baseball games last year – and he can expect to hear some folks cheer for him, so long as he stays in Texas.
I imagined myself with advanced training in the intelligence collection technique called speed lip-reading, enabling me to decipher from the TV screen what Condi Rice might be saying to her beloved mentor:
Not to worry, Mr. President, as I told those upstart students at Stanford when they kept asking about waterboarding, “By definition, if it was authorized by the President, it did not violate our obligations under the Convention Against Torture.” Period. End of story.
Remember, Mr. President, it was Richard Nixon who pronounced the principle of presidential impunity in his famous statement to interviewer David Frost, “when the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.”
Oh, the pardon? Well, you’re right. Nixon did need to be pardoned, but no worries for you on that score. What luck that we were able to get Obama and Eric Holder to agree to ride shotgun for us, if anyone summoned the temerity to bring charges against us for torture.
And, you can always use the perfect squelch — the one you used so effectively in talking about waterboarding in that TV interview with Matt Lauer on Nov. 8. You remember, you countered by saying, “The lawyer said it was legal.” As a last resort, we can always blame it on Al Gonzales and the gaggle of lawyers who gave us legal cover.
Your reply to Lauer was masterful. Glad we rehearsed that one so thoroughly. Just keep remembering not to say that you told the lawyers what you wanted them to say. Then we’re home free.
Speaking of home free, as Ollie North once said, “Is this a great country, or what?” Sure is nice not to have to worry, at least here at home, about anyone holding us accountable for what you called “alternative procedures” for interrogation; or for my asking George Tenet to orchestrate demonstrations of those procedures every couple of weeks in the White House Situation Room.
By the way, we just got a thoughtful thank-you note from George Tenet, who must be the most grateful of all ex-CIA directors. He wanted to remind us of an important anniversary coming up. No, besides Ronald Reagan’s birthday.
You may recall that it was on Feb. 7, 2002, that you signed that action memorandum saying the U.S. did not have to abide by the Geneva Conventions in how we treat al Qaeda or Taliban prisoners.
Tenet says that he and his boys know they owe you big time for putting down in writing the protection that made them comfortable going to the dark side.
I sure wish that other countries would simply read that carefully worded memo. Then, they might become as understanding as Obama and stop hinting that we are in some legal jeopardy.
Staying safe at home is nice, but I really miss traveling abroad. I’m about to forfeit thousands of frequent flyer miles.
Anyhow, I must remind you, Mr. President, you’re not the only one grounded for fear of being detained abroad. I can’t tell you how many speaking offers in Europe and elsewhere I’ve had to turn down.
It’s hard, embarrassing even, but you are right to decide to err on the side of caution. That way you are sure to avoid confrontations not only with the local gendarmerie, but also with people like those ubiquitous, obnoxious women from Code Pink who seem to spring up from nowhere with handcuffs.
Ubiquitous? Oh, that means they seem to be everywhere. Obnoxious you know, yes?
A recent Secret Service bulletin said some of them are even on Tahrir Square helping to give our friend Mubarak a hard time. And remember how they went around to bookstores and libraries last fall, putting your excellent book in the fiction or crime sections?
Code Pink is now doing the same thing with Rumsfeld’s book, and even inserting a bookmark that says: “WARNING: This Book’s Author is a War Criminal.” Heh, heh, poetic justice for Rumsfeld. Serves him right; I’m told that he has a bunch of nasty things to say about the rest of us.
I’m afraid Rumsfeld may catch more flak than you did in promoting your own book. Remember how those Code Pink activists challenged him the first time he came out of hiding in May 2009 and showed up at the White House Stenographers, sorry, Correspondents Dinner?
I’ve also been thinking of the very close call Rumsfeld had in Paris in October 2007, when he had to make a mad dash for the airport, upon learning that someone (I think the Center for Constitutional Rights was behind it) had filed a Convention Against Torture complaint against him with the Paris Prosecutor.
I mean, if I had my way, I’d tell Tenet's friends at Langley to round up the lot of them — Code Pink, Center for Constitutional Rights, whatever — and drop them off at one of the old black sites.
I tell you I’d do it, if we were still in power. All I’d need, of course, would be the President’s okay, preferably in writing — like that action memo of Feb. 7, 2002.
Don’t much care for Rumsfeld, but glad he beat the gendarmes onto the plane and is now, like us, safe at home. That could have been a terrible precedent. Luckily, you avoided that kind of scene by canceling out of Geneva.
“Canceling out of Geneva.” Has a familiar ring. That’s essentially what your February 2002 memo did, canceling the Geneva Conventions on treatment of detainees. That’s how you authorized what followed, how you made it legal.
End of imaginary lip-reading of Condoleezza Rice’s Super Bowl conversations with George W. Bush.
Now Dead Serious
Bush’s Feb. 7, 2002, memo, which was released by then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales to deflect early reports about abuse of detainees, turned out to be the smoking gun on Bush’s torture policies.
In it, Bush wrote: “I determine that common Article 3 of Geneva does not apply to either al Qaeda or Taliban detainees.”
Article 3, which is common to the other Geneva conventions on prisoners of war, bans “torture [and] outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.” The conventions permit no country to unilaterally exclude anyone from Geneva protections.
But Bush did so, while hiding the substance of his memo behind words that Gonzales thought would make Bush look kindly. Bush’s memo said detainees should be treated “humanely” and “in a manner consistent with the principles of Geneva,” but added the caveat, “to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity.”
In other words, Bush and his high command could decide whether “humane” treatment would be granted or not. If they saw a “military necessity” for, say, waterboarding somebody 183 times, then they could so order.
That, of course, is not what Geneva demands; there is no way to square this circle. Bush's memorandum violated international law, creating the giant loophole through which Rumsfeld and Tenet drove the Mack truck of torture.
After a lengthy investigation, the Senate Armed Services Committee concluded in December 2008 that it was President Bush himself who, by the Executive Memorandum of Feb. 7, 2002, “opened the door” to the abuse that ensued. Here is Conclusion Number One of the committee report:
“Following the President’s determination, techniques such as waterboarding, nudity, and stress positions … were authorized for use in interrogations of detainees in U.S. custody.”
The direct result was torture and sometimes murder of detainees at Guantanamo in Cuba, Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Bagram in Afghanistan. One chilling phrase used by young soldiers describing treatment of detainees at Guantanamo was “rape by instrumentality.”
When Congress attempted to draft legislation prohibiting such abuses, Bush’s White House lawyers objected citing their worry that such legislation might subject practitioners to prosecution under state and federal criminal statutes.
You may remember that one of the Bush administration’s favorite slogans was that evildoers must be “brought to justice.” Now, the world will be watching to see whether the evildoers of the Bush administration meet justice in the months and years to come.
Meanwhile, Bush, Rice, the lawyers and the hands-on “practitioners” of torture had best stay close to home. After all, some countries might not think that it’s such a “quaint” idea to enforce international law. They might even believe in the old American principle that “no man is above the law.”
Ray McGovern is an ecumenical Catholic working with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He spent almost 30 years as a CIA analyst and Army infantry/intelligence officer and is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).
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