IN HALF a century of reporting around the world, I have found that there was usually a feeling that the United States stood for standards of liberty, human rights, and the dignity of mankind. The Bush administration has taken us off that gold standard and drained away much of that reservoir of respect. The horrors of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have eaten away at America's credibility and moral standing, dismaying our friends and empowering our enemies.
Washington shuddered last week when The
Men and women of good will may differ on how much power the executive branch should have, and how much of our privacy and civil liberties need to be curtailed in an age of terrorism. As the former deputy attorney general, James Comey, who tried to stem the tide of the administration's malfeasance, said: there are "agonizing collisions" between the law and the desire to protect Americans. But no good will can be ascribed to those who secretly sought to undermine the republic by their underhanded advocacy of torture.
Instead of entering into an honest debate, the administration spoke of its "abhorrence" of torture while at the same time secretly promoting it. Not surprisingly, the fine hand of Vice President Dick Cheney and his counsel, David Addington, could be discerned. Despite his bluster, President Bush, "the decider," has turned out to be a weak president, riddled with insecurities masked by stubbornness, who has allowed his subordinates to gnaw away at the Constitution.
Some lawmakers, notably Senator John McCain who knows a thing or two about torture from his years as a prisoner in Hanoi, tried to halt the moral rot. But the secret opinions of the Justice Department found that the Detainee Treatment Act would not force any change in torture practices, allowing for water-boarding and all the rest to continue.
Perhaps the most demoralizing revelation was that while the public voice of America was urging democracy and openness on our allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt, other Americans - with the blessing of the administration - were going around to the cellar door to get briefed on how best to torture prisoners. Even the interrogation methods of the Soviet Union, which surely should have been discredited by now, were brought into play.
Many who are familiar with interrogation say that the kind of violence favored by the Bush administration is unnecessary and counterproductive. The trouble with copying the Soviet Union's methods is that, often as not, the Soviet interrogators were not after reliable information. They just wanted confessions to things they knew their prisoners had not done in order to justify a prisoner's eventual execution for purely political reasons.
The trouble with torture is that a prisoner will say anything he thinks you may want to hear. Take Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a planner of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. After being severely tortured he has confessed to such a wide-ranging number of crimes as to be unbelievable.
The long-range problem with the Bush administration's efforts to subvert national and international bans on torture is that it hurts us deeply in the struggle against Islamic extremism. It revolts the conscience of the world, which makes it harder for the West to convince Muslims that we are not the enemy of Islam. It encourages converts to Al Qaeda. It stays the hand of moderate Muslims who may otherwise want to cooperate with us. It undermines our international standing and our national security.
It was Comey, considered a wimp and disloyal by the administration for trying to stand up against the use of torture, who said to his Justice Department colleagues that they would be "ashamed" when the world eventually learned of their actions.
"It takes far more than a sharp legal mind to say 'no' when it matters most," he said. "It takes moral character. It takes an understanding that in the long run, intelligence under law is the only sustainable intelligence in this country."
Alas, moral character was in short supply at a Justice Department where the Bush administration could always find subordinates to subvert the rule of law.
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H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.