Republicans and Democrats have finally found something they can agree on. They have bipartisan support to stop Bush’s inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners in United States custody: It’s bad for our image in the Arab and Muslim world. It breeds more resentment against the US, making us more vulnerable to terrorism. And it’s just plain un-American.
Last month, an Army captain and two sergeants from the 82nd Airborne Division contacted Senator John McCain (R-Ariz) and Human Rights Watch with allegations that members of the unit routinely beat, tortured and abused detainees in 2003 and early 2004. Capt. Ian Fishback, a Westpoint graduate, said he was frustrated that his reports to superiors went unheeded.
They reported seeing soldiers break prisoners’ legs, and strike blows to the heads, chests, and stomachs of prisoners – on a daily basis. They described witnessing soldiers pour chemical substances on prisoners’ skin and into their eyes. They said the mistreatment at a base near Fallujah was “just like” what happened at Abu Ghraib.
Capt. Fishback told Human Rights Watch that he believes the abuses he witnessed in Iraq and Afghanistan were caused in part by Bush’s 2002 decision not to apply the Geneva Conventions protections to detainees captured in Afghanistan. Fishback said:
[In Afghanistan,] I thought that the chain of command all the way up to the National Command Authority [President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld] had made it a policy that we were going to interrogate these guys harshly … We knew where the Geneva Conventions drew the line, but then you get that confusion when the Sec Def [Secretary of Defense] and the President make that statement [that Geneva did not apply to detainees].
Two weeks ago, 90 percent of the Senate voted to ban “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” of prisoners held in US military custody. Although the vote merely reflects prohibitions already existing in several treaties the United States has ratified – making them binding domestic law under the Constitution – the Bush administration has refused to follow the law.
The measure introduced by McCain and other Republican senators was an amendment to a $440 billion Defense Appropriations bill. It was adopted by the votes of 46 Republicans, 43 Democrats and one Independent. The amendment also prohibits the use of any interrogation treatment or technique not authorized by and listed in the US Army Field Manual on Intelligence Information.
Notwithstanding the universal prohibition on cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment in the laws that bind the United States, the Bush administration has taken the position that they apply only within US territory, and only within limits recognized in the US War Crimes Act with respect to US nationals abroad.
For that reason, the McCain amendment specifies there will be no “geographical limitation on the applicability of the prohibition against cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.”
McCain, a POW in Vietnam for nearly six years, said, “Many of my comrades were subjected to very cruel, very inhumane and degrading treatment, a few of them even unto death. But every one of us – every single one of us – knew and took great strength from the belief that we were different from our enemies.”
More than two dozen retired senior military officers, including Colin Powell and John Shalikashvili, both former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, support the McCain amendment.
Bush sent Dick Cheney to pressure McCain to withdraw his amendment, without success. Now that the amendment has been adopted by the Senate, Bush threatens to veto the appropriations bill if the McCain amendment is appended to it. The White House says the measure would “restrict the president’s authority to protect Americans effectively from terrorist attack and bringing terrorists to justice.”
A presidential veto can be overturned by a two-thirds majority in both houses. But some House Republicans plan to push for the McCain amendment to be dropped from the spending bill in a joint House-Senate conference committee.
An editorial in the Washington Post said: “Let’s be clear: Mr. Bush is proposing to use the first veto of his presidency on a defense bill needed to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan so that he can preserve the prerogative to subject detainees to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. In effect, he threatens to declare to the world his administration’s moral bankruptcy.”
It’s a pity that Congress continues to finance the failed US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the Democrats recapture the House and Senate in the mid-term elections, and if, as Bob Herbert wrote in yesterday’s New York Times, the Democrats “get over their timidity, look deep into their own souls, discover what they truly believe and then tell it like it is,” they could push Congress to stop funding those wars and we could withdraw our troops. That is how US involvement in Vietnam ended. But don’t hold your breath.
The Bush administration persists in blocking any independent investigation of the torture, murder and inhuman treatment of prisoners in US custody, and Congress has thus far failed to demand one.
Bush is probably taking solace from a statement by Professor John Yoo, one of the principal authors of the Bush administration’s torture memos, who wrote in the Washington Post: Harriet Miers “may be one of the key supporters in the Bush administration of staying the course on legal issues arising from the war on terrorism.” When legal challenges to Bush’s policies come before the Supreme Court, Miers may well salute and march to the orders of her former boss.