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Twisting American Values

June 09, 2004

"Everything changed after 9/11" became, in 2001, the slogan that justified new approaches to national security, including curtailment of civil liberties. Nearly three years later, we learn that even the use of torture was being justified when it came to terror suspects. The Bush administration's Justice Department turned the Constitution on its head by telling the White House in an August 2002 memo -- written nearly a year after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- not only that torture "may be justified" but that laws against torture "may be unconstitutional if applied to interrogations" in the U.S. war on terror.

Those are the words of out-of-control government servants willing to discard the most fundamental values of this nation. But the declaration became the basis for a secret draft report in March 2003 by Pentagon lawyers to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. That report said the president's "inherent constitutional authority to manage a military campaign" meant prohibitions on torture did not apply.

It is not known if the language of the draft survived in a final report, and Pentagon officials said the document had no effect on revised interrogation procedures for Guantanamo Bay inmates issued in April 2003. But the memo's willingness to discard international and domestic laws adds strength to questions about the interrogations of prisoners in Afghanistan, Iraq and the U.S. facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A 2001 memo from Rumsfeld's office, for instance, said intelligence officers should "take the gloves off" when interrogating the so-called American Talib, John Walker Lindh.

"A few bad apples" was the dismissive phrase used by the White House after photos of brutality by U.S. forces in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison leaked out. The fact that there were numerous soldiers, including alleged Army intelligence officers, in some of the pictures immediately chipped at that claim. New reports of abuse or torture of inmates in Afghanistan rolled in. Last month, the Pentagon said 32 inmates had died in U.S. custody in Iraq and five in Afghanistan; so far, eight of the deaths appear to have been homicides.

Congress must determine how far up the chain of command the abuse stretched and who authorized or tolerated it. The torture memo, all drafts of the report to Rumsfeld and the names of those who received them should be made public. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft refused such a request Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The effort shouldn't stop there.

In 1994, the U.S. ratified the international Convention Against Torture, which states there are "no exceptional circumstances whatsoever" to justify torture. Torture is morally wrong and practically ineffective. This was especially true at Abu Ghraib, where most detainees were not suspected terrorists. Mistreatment of inmates invites retaliation against captured U.S. soldiers, one reason many uniformed Pentagon lawyers opposed the memo's conclusions.

The administration should open its files and explain its interrogation procedures. Anything less reinforces the image of a brutal nation unfettered by the rule of law.

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