Vice President Cheney is the man who unleashed torture and promoted it within our military and our intelligence service. —Scott Horton, chairman, Inter-national Law Committee, Association of the Bar of the City of New York
In more than 50 years of reporting on the national scene, I have seldom seen a more furious attack on a hugely influential public official than a lead editorial, “Vice President for Torture,” in the October 26 Washington Post:
“Vice President Cheney is aggressively pursuing an initiative that may be unprecedented for an elected official of the executive branch: He is proposing that Congress legally authorize human rights abuses by Americans. . . . He will be remembered as the vice president who campaigned for torture.”
On October 20, Dick Cheney and CIA head Porter Goss tried to bully Republican senator John McCain to at least soften his amendments to the defense appropriations bill that would prohibit the “cruel, inhuman or degrading” treatment of anyone in American custody anywhere in the world. That amendment would establish the Army Field Manual as the standard for interrogation of all “detainees” held by the Defense Department.
Startlingly, the McCain amendment won 90 votes in the Senate, including those of 46 Republicans. The House defense appropriations bill has no counterpart to McCain’s amendment because the House leadership strongly opposes it. As of this writing, the two versions are in a congressional conference committee. Even if the McCain amendment is stricken from the final bill, McCain has pledged to attach it to forthcoming legislation. (Bush has threatened to veto any such language that comes before him.)
With the 90 Senate votes forbidding abuses, including torture, of American prisoners in mind, Cheney is determined to kill McCain’s attempt to force the president to adhere to international treaties against torture the U.S. has signed—and our own anti-torture statute. As Scott Horton reminded us on Amy Goodman’s syndicated program, Democracy Now!, the vice president, back in 2002, “was making the rounds of the talk shows and talking about the need to use ‘the dark arts.’ He was clearly advocating torture, and he was advocating it within the CIA and later the Defense Department.”
On this October 20, when Cheney called on John McCain, with Porter Goss in tow, he gave a proposal to the former tortured prisoner of war in Vietnam: Keep your amendment, but with one exception—that the prohibition of inhumane treatment shall not apply to our covert counterterrorism operations abroad—or
to operations involving “ an element of the United States government“ that is not part of the Defense Department. (Emphasis added.) This means that agents of the CIA would, as usual, have their own “special powers” above our laws.
As Charlie Savage, The Boston Globe‘s first-class Washington reporter, made clear: “If Congress passes an anti-abuse law that exempts the CIA, the law would constitute, for the first time, clear authorization to engage in abusive interrogations to protect national security.”
What would the president pay? On October 25, when asked about Cheney’s trying to apply his “dark arts” to bypass McCain, Bush’s press secretary, Scott McClellan, turned on his internal tape recording: “We do not condone torture, nor would [President Bush] ever authorize the use of torture. We have an obligation to abide by our laws and our treaty obligations, and that’s what we do.” (Play it again, Scott.)
McCain’s blunt reaction to Cheney’s proposed legislation, as reported by Charlie Savage: “I don’t see how you could possibly agree to legitimizing an agent of the government engaging in torture. No amendment at all would be better than that.”
Cheney’s urgent need to circumvent McCain’s stubborn heresy was accentuated by Dana Priest in a front-page Washington Post story on November 2: “CIA Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons.” Priest had been exposing CIA lawlessness since her exclusive December 2002 story of prisoners (and of torture) at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
Her newest bursts of acusatory sunlight—which will probably again not win her a Pulitzer— note that this CIA system of possibly Saddam Hussein–like interrogation centers is kept secret not only from us lowly Americans but also from “nearly all members of Congress charged with overseeing the CIA’s covert actions. . . . Virtually nothing is known about who is kept in the facilities, what interrogation methods are employed with them, or how decisions are made about whether they should be detained or for how long.”
A New York Times October 23 corollary story to Dana Priest’s by Douglas Jehl and Tim Golden is headed: “CIA Is Likely to Avoid Charges in Most Prisoner Deaths” during CIA interrogations that we know about, not counting whatever is happening to prisoners in the CIA’s deeply secret torture chambers as you are reading this column.
Prophetically dissenting in a 1948 Supreme Court decision,
Ahrens v. Clark, civil libertarian Justice Wiley Blount Rutledge wrote: “[There] may be instances arising in the future where persons are wrongfully detained in places unknown to those who would apply for habeas corpus in their behalf [so a U.S. court can determine if they’re legally held] . . .
“These dangers may seem unreal in the United States. But the experience of less fortunate countries should serve as a warning.”
That warning has not been heard. As Dana Priest emphasizes, these CIA “black sites,” as they’re called “in classified White House, CIA, Justice Department, and congressional documents, are known to only a handful of officials in the United States and, usually, only to the president and a few top intelligence officers in each host country”—our allies aspiring to become democracies.
How is it possible that in this constitutional democracy—where Dana Priest and others vigorously exercise freedom of the press—no one is held accountable for these terrifying CIA practices? No one. Not Dick Cheney and not even George W. Bush, who continues to authorize these “black sites” in our war to spread democracy and our other moral values around the world. There are serious penalties for violating international treaties and our own laws. Where—ho! ho! ho!—is our Justice Department?
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 8, 2005