Jane Mayer on Torture

JANE MAYER ON TORTURE….Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article about Alberto Mora, the former general counsel of the Navy, and his fight against abusive interrogation practices, is must reading. But I want to highlight the part of the story that hasn’t really seen the light of day before. Near the middle of Mayer’s account, we learn that after several months of internal fighting, Mora had warned William Haynes, the general counsel of the Department of Defense, that he planned to put his objections to the Pentagon’s policies in writing:

By the end of the day, Haynes called Mora with good news. Rumsfeld was suspending his authorization of the disputed interrogation techniques. The Defense Secretary also was authorizing a special ?working group? of a few dozen lawyers, from all branches of the armed services, including Mora, to develop new interrogation guidelines. Mora, elated, went home to his wife and son….

A week later, Mora learned that John Yoo, a lawyer in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, had written an opinion arguing that Mora’s concerns were unfounded. Yoo’s opinion was forwarded to the working group:

In the spring of 2003, Mora waited for the final working-group report to emerge, planning to file a strong dissent. But the report never appeared. Mora assumed that the draft based on Yoo?s ideas had not been finalized and that the suspension of the harsh techniques authorized by Rumsfeld was still in effect.

….In June…Haynes wrote a letter [to Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy] saying that the Pentagon?s policy was never to engage in torture, or cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment ? just the sort of statement Mora had argued for. He wrote…that he saw Haynes?s letter as ?the happy culmination of the long debates in the Pentagon.? He sent an appreciative note to Haynes, saying that he was glad to be on his team.

The next year, Mora learned that he’d been sandbagged:

On April 28, 2004, ten months later, the first pictures from Abu Ghraib became public. Mora said, ?I felt saddened and dismayed. Everything we had warned against in Guant?namo had happened?but in a different setting. I was stunned.?

He was further taken aback when he learned, while watching Senate hearings on Abu Ghraib on C-SPAN, that Rumsfeld had signed the working-group report ? the draft based on Yoo?s opinion ? a year earlier, without the knowledge of Mora or any other internal legal critics. Rumsfeld?s signature gave it the weight of a military order. ?This was the first I?d heard of it!?

….Without Mora?s knowledge, the Pentagon had pursued a secret detention policy. There was one version, enunciated in Haynes?s letter to Leahy, aimed at critics. And there was another, giving the operations officers legal indemnity to engage in cruel interrogations, and, when the Commander-in-Chief deemed it necessary, in torture. Legal critics within the Administration had been allowed to think that they were engaged in a meaningful process; but their deliberations appeared to have been largely an academic exercise, or, worse, a charade.

It’s stunning. Not only did the Bush administration keep Congress and the American public in the dark, but they even deliberately lied to their own chief legal advisors. (The administration provided Mayer with an official excuse for this behavior, of course, but it’s laughably thin.)

And the debate is still going on. Mora reports that “a few months ago” he sat in on a meeting to decide if it should be official Pentagon policy to treat detainees in accordance with Common Article Three of the Geneva conventions, which bars cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment. Despite the fact that virtually everyone at the meeting supported the proposal, and despite the fact that U.S. law already forbids the violation of Common Article Three, the proposal was scuttled because of Bush administration opposition.

The pigheaded blindness on display here is nothing short of astonishing. Even those who don’t have any moral objection to abusive treatment of prisoners ought to understand the tremendous damage done to our cause by refusing to abide by U.S. law, international treaties, or even a decent respect for world opinion. It’s simply impossible to persuade the rest of the world that we’re the good guys as long as we persist in plainly repugnant behavior.

As always, the problem with the Bush administration is not that they want to fight a war on terror. The problem is that they don’t understand how to fight it, and because of that we’re losing the broader and more important ideological war against terrorism ? and we’re going to keep on losing it until they figure that out, something they show no signs of doing. That’s the problem.