The torturers win one

The State Department spokesman who spoke out on the maltreatment of Bradley Manning is forced out.

P.J. Crowley, having told an inconvenient truth regarding the maltreatment of Bradley Manning, has abruptly stepped down as the official spokesman for the State Department.

At one level, this is no surprise: it’s not normal for the spokesman for one cabinet department to refer to the conduct of another as “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid.” Doing so forces the President to take sides; if the spokesman keeps his job after saying that, the only interpretation is that the President more or less agrees. Apparently the President wasn’t willing to allow that interpretation to stand.

Such a statement also puts the spokesman’s boss in the middle, she (in this case) can either distance herself from the remarks, or not. In this case, Hilary Clinton chose “not.” She merely praised Crowley’s record without any hint that he was leaving on a sour note.

Though I’m not surprised, I am disappointed. Either the President really approves of what is being done to Manning, or he isn’t willing to oppose the military even when its conduct is, in fact, ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid: not to mention unconscionable and un-American and borderline criminal.

With friends like these …

This New York Times story details some of the routine, casual, mindless brutality of the Egyptian secret police, the Mukhabarat. Until last week, the head of the Mukhabarat was Omar Suleiman, now the Vice President.

Think about that when you read that the U.S. is pressing the Egyptian opposition to come to terms with Suleiman.

Part of the problem is that any President in such a situation has to rely in part on the CIA for information. And the CIA works hard to maintain good relations with foreign intelligence services. It wouldn’t be surprising if documents from the CIA cast Suleiman in a good light. But the fact that his agency was one of those to which the CIA outsourced torture under the “rendition” program ought to make us all a little bit ashamed, if not sick to our stomachs. The guy our government wants to put in charge of the new Egypt was the manager of the local Fingernail Factory.

Torturing Bradley Manning

Prolonged isolation is torture. Barack Obama should be ashamed of himself.

I don’t know for certain that Bradley Manning is being held in “super-max” conditions, locked alone in his cell 23 hours a day, for most of that period forbidden to sleep, exercise, or write, and subject to random awakening in the middle of the night. But as far as I can tell no one has bothered to deny it. [DoD seems to have issued a non-denial denial, which challenges none of the factual claims but denies that the conditions amount to “mistreatment.” Whatever.]

There seems to be no good reason for such treatment : it’s not as if Manning had any secrets left to spill, and the claim that it’s being done as “prevention of injury” doesn’t pass the giggle test. So this handling of a man still innocent in law can only reflect one of two bad reasons: spite, or a desire to coerce testimony.

Either way, it’s completely inexcusable. I haven’t even seen an attempted defense of it other than “the SOB deserves it” from a few of the usual wingnut suspects. Torture is a crime, under domestic law as well as international law, and of course a violation of the Eighth Amendment. And no, the fact that no blood is drawn doesn’t make prolonged isolation any less hideous. It’s a reliable way to drive someone mad. No human being deserves it; even those who need to be isolated because otherwise they act out violently can be handled more humanely.

I had lots of strong reasons for voting for Barack Obama, and most of them are still valid. But the strongest was his forthright opposition to torture. I would have thought that on that one issue a liberal former Con Law teacher would have been completely reliable.

Right now – despite yesterday’s triumph on DADT – I’m disgusted with my President, and ashamed of my country.

Footnote No, this doesn’t mean I think Manning is innocent in fact: it would be harder to imagine a clearer violation of the Espionage Act, unless you count what Rove and Cheney did to Valerie Plame. Manning, once he’s been accused, tried, and convicted, belongs in prison. But no one belongs in that kind of prison.

Presidential leadership and torture: What a coinky-dink!

Was there some event that happened just before 2009 that might explain why we went from “shrugging” at torture to caring about it?

From Marc Ambinder:

The big reveal from the hundreds of thousands of documents posted on Wikileaks today is probably going to be the incredibly awful reports of systematized detainee abuse by Iraqi soldiers and security forces right under the noses of the American-led coalition, which appears to have had virtually no incentive to put a stop to them.

An operational order called Frago 242 was sent to commanders in 2004, ordering, in essence, that only detainee abuse allegations involving coalition forces would be investigated. The rest would merely be noted. And noted they were, in horrifying detail. The New York Times correctly calls this an “institutional shrug.” By 2009, the coalition policy had evidently changed, and allegations were investigated.

Gee, I wonder what was different between 2004 and 2009? Was there some event that happened just before 2009 that might explain why we went from “shrugging” at torture to caring about it?

Such-another-victory-and-we-are-lost Dep’t

The Ninth Circuit rules that the Obama Administration can continue to cover up the war crimes of its predecessor. The NYT calls that “a victory for Obama.”

In what the front-page headline in the New York Times calls “A Victory for Obama,” a closely-divided Ninth Circuit has decided that the State Secrets Privilege prevents torture victims from suing corporate accomplices to their torture.

The plaintiff in the case had his personal torture partly outsourced to the Moroccan secret police, who abused him in ways that the RBC’s “family-friendly” policy forbids me from relating. He was then shipped back to Afghanistan, where officials of the United States Government spent your money and mine on less imaginative, but not less vicious, forms of torment. He was then released, suggesting he was something far short of “the worst of the worst.”

Of course, that’s from the complaint. We’re not to be allowed to know how much of it is true.

I’m told by someone in a position to know and who wouldn’t lie to me that we’re no longer practicing torture, even torture-by-proxy. (And his definition of “torture” comes from the English language and not the Yoo and Bybee memos.) So the “victory” for Obama consists in the continuing capacity to cover up the war crimes, crimes against humanity, and felony (perhaps capital) violations of domestic U.S. law by the collection of thugs hired by his predecessor.

I can imagine three forms of damage to the national security that might come from a trial: aiding terrorist recruiting and damaging the American image abroad as the facts came out (think of Abu Ghraib, squared); subjecting current and former U.S. officials and contract personnel to obloquy and perhaps criminal prosecution; and blowing the cover of the Moroccan and other contract torturers, who no doubt were promised anonymity. None of that is the sort of order-of-battle information – stuff that would help an enemy plan strategy and tactics – that the “State Secrets” doctrine was invented to protect (by the courts, as recently as the 1950s).

And of course all the torture voters are voting straight Tea Party this year, and people like Dick Cheney – who in a just world might well have wound up in the gas chamber, if it could have been shown that someone died as a result of the torture he ordered – will feel free to continue to abuse the President as soft on terror.

Not, all in all, such a good day to be an American.

Optimism about the mental health of the Iraqi people

The news service of the United Nations Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has a report out on psychological trauma among Iraqis. What Iraqis have gone through over the past 40 years rivals the suffering of any other people in the world, but overall, things actually look less bleak in terms of Iraq’s mental health than they did a few years ago.

The mental health survey numbers in the UN account are shocking if you compare them to rates in peaceful countries, but among nations that have experienced war and terrorism (e.g., Lebanon, Rwanda) they are actually relatively low. When I predicted an epidemic of PTSD a few years ago I may have underestimated some important stress buffering factors in the country: Families are close knit, religious faith is widespread, and while addiction is becoming much more prevalent, a significant portion of the population uses no alcohol or drugs at all.

The UN news report mentions the expansion of psychological therapy services in Iraq, which is a major achievement for the Iraqis and was facilitated by the support of the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the U.K. National Health Service and Royal College of Psychiatry and the International Medical Corps. Another critical factor has been the leadership of Dr. Salih Mahdi Motlab al-Hasnawi, who is a rare creature in the world of health policy: A national Health Minister with a specialization in psychiatry. Continue reading “Optimism about the mental health of the Iraqi people”

Immigration and Respect for the “Rule of Law”

To right-wingers who say that the Arizona immigration law is necessary to protect “respect for the rule of law,” there is a simple two word answer: John Yoo.

So just a few minutes ago I was having a conversation with a very conservative Republican colleague about immigration and the Arizona law.  I agree on virtually nothing with this colleague, but always like to hear his views.  but then he said something that would have made me go ballistic if I hadn’t been able to control myself.

“The problem if we don’t enforce immigration statutes,” he told me, “is that it breeds disrespect for the rule of law.”

To which there is a simple two-word answer: John Yoo.

Seriously, the same people now talking about the rule of law, ran roughshod over decades of settled opinions concerning torture, concerning the separation of powers, concerning search and seizure, concerning, well, just about anything if it stood in their way, and they are now lecturing us on the rule of law?

I realize that hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, but this tribute is a little too high — which makes it rancid.

Kagan: against torture and arbitrary detention

She was against them, when Lindsey Graham wanted to shred the Constitution to permit them.

In 2005, Lindsey Graham – that very reasonable Republican – offered an amendment to strip the federal courts of all jurisdiction over detainee affairs. The goal was to prevent the court from deciding Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. Elena Kagan, whose coming Supreme Court nomination has some progressives up in arms, joined three other law school deans in writing a letter to the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The letter read, in part:

To put this most pointedly, were the Graham Amendment to become law, a person suspected of being a member of Al Qaeda could be arrested, transferred to Guantanamo, detained indefinitely (provided that proper procedures had been followed in deciding that the person is an ‘‘enemy combatant’’), subjected to inhumane treatment, tried before a military commission and sentenced to death without any express authorization from Congress and without review by any independent federal court. The American form of government was established precisely to prevent this kind of unreviewable exercise of power over the lives of individuals.


We cannot imagine a more inappropriate moment to remove scrutiny of Executive Branch treatment of noncitizen detainees. We are all aware of serious and disturbing reports of secret overseas prisons, extraordinary renditions, and the abuse of prisoners in Guantanamo, Iraq and Afghanistan. The Graham Amendment will simply reinforce the public perception that Congress approves Executive Branch decisions to act beyond the reach of law. As such, it undermines two core elements of the rule of law: congressionally sanctioned rules that limit and guide the exercise of Executive power and judicial review to ensure that those rules have in fact been honored.

When dictatorships have passed laws stripping their courts of power to review executive detention or punishment of prisoners, our government has rightly challenged such acts as fundamentally lawless. The same standard should apply to our own government.

[Per Nina Totenberg, h/t Mark Memmott. Full text at the jump.]

I’m not denying that Graham is sometimes somewhat less rabid than his colleagues, or that there were other potential Justices who would have been more forthrightly liberal on a range of issues, including the limitation of executive power in the national-security area. But the fact that a relatively moderate Democrat was willing to speak out against torture and arbitrary detention in 2005, when even a relatively moderate Republican was all in favor of it, points up the gulf between the two parties, and the folly of the “progressive” strategy to punish Barack Obama from not being Bernie Sanders by sitting on their hands while the Republicans retake the House and add several seats in the Senate. Even Bernie Sanders wouldn’t be Bernie Sanders if he found himself in the Oval Office. That’s just life in the big city.

Continue reading “Kagan: against torture and arbitrary detention”

The Catholic magisterium and torture

Vatican II ranked torture with genocide and abortion; the Chilean Bishops threatened to excommunicate Pinochet’s torturers.

Two facts I hadn’t known about the position and record of the Catholic Church on torture, mentioned in two letters by Catholic priests published in Thursday’s New York Times:

1. Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World produced at the Second Vatican Council, calls “torments inflicted on body or mind” and “attempts to coerce the will itself” both “infamies” and “supreme dishonor to the Creator.” They are mentioned in parallel to abortion and genocide. In the Catholic tradition, the solemn declaration of an Ecumenical Council carries enormous authority; conciliar decrees were considered infallible long before Vatican I decided that some papal decrees had that status.

2. The Catholic Bishops of Chile threatened Pinochet’s torturers with excommunication.

If the American bishops can be distracted from their current project of helping their right-wing allies destroy health care reform, perhaps they might consider a similar declaration. It is (let’s hope) not necessary right now, but it would put the current torture debate in a clearer perspective.