WASHINGTON, D.C—Unfazed by Torturegate, Bush’s re-election machine is churning forward, burying the only investigation into the matter in the patsy Senate Armed Services Committee and shifting the scandal’s focus to a show trial by court-martial of a minor figure in Baghdad. That leaves Bush free to go about campaigning with the least possible discomfort. As Ted Kennedy remarked to Donald Rumsfeld at the Senate committee hearings last Thursday, Bush’s response to the scandal looks more like a “public relations plan” than a serious inquiry.
And through the weekend at least, the damage control worked pretty well. Virginia’s Republican senator John Warner, chair of the Armed Services Committee but better known as Elizabeth Taylor’s ex, has put himself on record supporting Rumsfeld. His committee has done nothing in its long and sorry history but play kiss-ass to the Pentagon. Warner, a former secretary of the navy who suddenly presents himself as a warrior statesman, is in fact just a typical mutt among lapdog Republicans. Under his stewardship, this sleepy panel has routinely given the Pentagon what it’s asked for, and defense spending now amounts to half the entire federal budget. Rumsfeld thinks so highly of Warner that he didn’t bother to tell the senator, at a briefing shortly before the torture photos got on the Web, that the scandal was about to break. On Meet the Press Sunday, Warner expressed an abiding admiration for Rumsfeld, calling him “a man of conscience.”
To get an idea of how lame this committee is, consider 9-11. In the attacks that day, our entire national defense system collapsed. Rumsfeld, sitting in his Pentagon office, apparently didn’t know a plane was headed for his building until it hit.
As for torture, pretty much everyone knows we torture prisoners in civilian and military jails. Of course we don’t admit to it. As Bryan Whitman, Rumsfeld’s spokesman, carefully put it, “The policies of the United States and the Defense Department are consistent, in that we do not permit activities or interrogation procedures that are torturous or cruel and that all the techniques that are approved for use are within the law.” Whatever that means. As for specific techniques, like harnessing up a 70-year-old woman and riding her around or siccing a dog on a bound prisoner, Whitman told the press that security concerns prevented him from making a specific comment. When it comes to formal government policy, Bush and Rumsfeld have pretty much downplayed the Geneva Conventions, and as Senator Carl Levin noted at Thursday’s hearing, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales had urged skirting the Geneva Conventions in the name of greater “flexibility.” Newsweek reports that senior members of Congress received briefings that U.S. interrogators in Iraq and elsewhere did not feel themselves constrained by the Geneva Conventions.
The administration has been all over the map as to who is protected by the Geneva Conventions and who is not.
“However I make my decision, these detainees will be well treated,” Bush was quoted as saying in January 2002. “We are not going to call them prisoners of war in either case, and the reason why is Al Qaeda is not a known military. These are killers, these are terrorists.”
Victoria Clarke, the Pentagon spokeswoman at the time, added, “We are in very unconventional times. We’re in a very unconventional war. So every aspect of it, including the Geneva Convention and how it might be applied, should be looked at with new eyes and new thoughts as to what we’re experiencing right now.”
In September 2002, the government’s counter-terrorism coordinator, Cofer Black, reportedly told the Senate that interrogators had been given the green light in obtaining information. “This is a very highly classified area,” The Age of Melbourne, Australia, quoted him as saying. “But I have to say to you, all you need to know: There was a before-9-11 and there was an after-9-11. After 9-11, the gloves came off.”