Torture Is US: NY Times Report

President Bush has used the “war on terror” to ruthlessly politicize the Justice Department, secretly endorse torture and avoid Congressional oversight, according to an investigative report published this week in the New York Times.

The paper’s investigation focused on two secret Justice Department memos which contain legal opinions that endorse interrogation practices such as head-slapping, exposure to freezing temperatures and simulated drowning using the notorious “water boarding” method.

The first memo says that no interrogation methods are illegal unless they produce pain equivalent to organ failure or death. The second memo explicitly sets out a range of physically and psychologically painful practices and tells interrogators how often and how long they can be used; it also advises that various methods can be used simultaneously.

The documents were issued shortly after Alberto Gonzales took over the helm of the Justice Department in February 2005, following the Department’s public declaration in December 2004 that it considered torture “abhorrent”.

Congressional Democrats are demanding access to the previously unknown memos and have accused President Bush of avoiding legislative oversight to secretly sanction torture.

On Friday, President Bush responded, “This government does not torture people.”

The Justice Department’s public rejection of torture in December 2004 seemed to signal the end of the Bush administration’s pursuit of nearly unlimited presidential authority to sanction violent interrogations of terror suspects.

President Bush and CIA officials have repeatedly argued that these methods help elicit crucial intelligence. However, many veteran interrogators, psychologists and other experts say that torture is no more effective than legal methods of interrogation, and often induces suspects to make up information to stop the torture.

One compelling aspect of the New York Times report is its detailed accounts of clashes within the Justice Department between veteran federal prosecutors committed to the rule of law and political appointees who devoted their tenure to pleasing their masters in the Bush administration.

Douglas Kmiec, who led the department’s Office of Legal Counsel under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, said he believed that intense pressures associated with the “war on terror” had warped the office’s proper role.

“The office was designed to insulate against any need to be an advocate,” said Mr Kmiec, now a conservative scholar at Pepperdine University law school. But in recent years, the office at times seemed to have “lost its ability to say no”.

“The approach changed dramatically with opinions on the war on terror,” said Mr Kmiec. “The office became an advocate for the president’s policies.”

Former deputy attorney general James Comey believed this was an intolerable transformation affecting much of the Justice Department. In 2005, he led the charge to kill the controversial memos, angrily rejecting them as overreaching and poorly reasoned, and warning colleagues including Mr Gonzales that they would all be “ashamed” one day when their complicity became public. Mr Gonzales made it clear that the White House was adamant that the legal opinions in the memos be endorsed, and that as Attorney General he would raise no objections.

Mr Comey had a reputation as a stern, conservative attorney who defended the department’s independence and never hesitated to confront the Bush administration. In one celebrated standoff at the White House in 2004, he told Vice President Dick Cheney’s counsel David Addington that “no lawyer” would endorse the National Security Agency’s surveillance and detention program. When Mr Addington said that as a lawyer he would endorse it, Mr Comey shot back: “No good lawyer”.

Mr Comey fell further afoul of the Bush administration after appointing Patrick Fitzgerald as special prosecutor in the CIA leak case, which led to the conviction of Mr Cheney’s chief of staff Lewis “Scooter” Libby on perjury charges. Finding himself increasingly isolated under the leadership of Mr Gonzales – in addition to being labeled “disloyal” – Mr Comey eventually quit the Justice Department.

Yet during his tenure, Mr Comey delivered a number of memorable speeches on legal issues relating to counterterrorism. When he addressed the NSA’s Fort Meade campus on Law Day in 2004, he discussed what he called “agonizing collisions” between the law and the desire to protect Americans. He urged the students to show courage and strength of character in defending the rule of law no matter what pressures they faced.

“We are likely to hear the words ‘If we don’t do this, people will die’,” said Mr Comey; however, “It takes far more than a sharp legal mind to say ‘no’ when it matters most. It takes moral character. It takes an understanding that in the long run, intelligence under law is the only sustainable intelligence in this country.”

Source: The New York Times

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