Clinton tried to fudge the truth when he claimed he'd "never had sexual
relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky," but he felt he could get away
with that language because, in his mind, he defined "sexual relations" as
referring to vaginal intercourse.
Bush, with a straight face, tells us that he has never authorized torture,
and he thinks he can get away with that lie because the public is mostly
unaware that his administration has totally altered the definition of
According to the infamous 2002 torture memos, which effectively set the
policy, torture no longer means what we all understand that term to mean
(physical beatings, shoving suspects under water to "drown" them unless
they give up secrets, electric shocks to the genitals, unbearable stress,
sexual abuse and humiliation, etc.). No, those internationally-understood
definitions have become, under Bush&Co., "quaint" remnants from an earlier
Under the leadership of Alberto Gonzales and other lawyers -- mainly from
the White House, Rumsfeld's office, and Cheney's office -- the Bush
Administration went through all sorts of moral gyrations and emerged with
new definitions of what constituted torture. Basically, it's not torture
if it doesn't kill you or if the excruciating pain and injuries don't lead
to organ failure.
You think I'm exaggerating? Check it out for yourself. The Justice
Department's August 1, 2002, legal memo concluded that "the ban on torture
is limited to only the most extreme forms of physical and mental harm,"
which the memo defined as akin to "death or organ failure." (See also
Deceit: What 'Is' Is," and
"Gonzales Grilled on Role in Torture at Confirmation Hearing").
So when Bush says the U.S. doesn't torture and he would never authorize
torture, in a sense he believes himself to be telling the truth, since he
totally transformed the meaning of "torture" to give it a totally
different, exceedingly narrow, interpretation. The Administration
apparently believes that as a result of interrogations under what Bush
calls its "alternative set of procedures," only if the detainees die or
are the victims of organ failure could officials rightfully be accused of
authorizing torture. (Actually, it's estimated that perhaps as many as 100
detainees have died while in U.S. custody, scores of them directly from
A FEW "EXCEPTIONS" FROM TORTURE LAWS
Furthermore, Bush is asserting that U.S. laws against torture, and
Congressional oversight of such activity, should only apply to
interrogations that take place on American soil. If the CIA uses the
"alternative procedures" in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or in the secret CIA
prisons abroad, those don't count. Plus, the Administration has moved to
shield those who authorized and carry out "harsh" interrogations from
national and international laws against mistreatment of prisoners.
Meanwhile, of course, a few lower-level, enlisted "bad apples" have been
tried, convicted, and sent to prison.
Likewise, according to the Bush Administration, the "extraordinary
rendition" of especially recalcitrant prisoners to friendly countries
abroad that are notorious for extreme physical torture does not count as
the U.S. cooperating in the administration of torture. The Bush crew play
variations on: "They were tortured there? Really? We are shocked, shocked!
We don't approve of torture and had no idea it was used on prisoners
entrusted to their care." Yeah, sure.
But recently, in making the case to Congress that it should pass the
Administration's draconian laws permitting such "alternative procedures,"
Bush let the cat out of the bag and admitted that several al-Qaida
suspects gave up a good deal of valuable information while being
interrogated in those secret CIA prisons abroad. But he still denies that
his administration carried out "torture" there. Does he think we're
Do you see how it works? And the ramifications of how it works? In short,
Bush&Co. have simply rewritten the dictionary to remove their legal
liability for such crimes, and in the process have re-written the rules
under which they, and their subordinates, act. When reality doesn't meet
their needs, they don't consider making alterations to their policies;
they just change the definition of what's "real."
BUSH DESPERATE FOR TORTURE VICTORY
In a sign of how desperate Bush is to maintain complete control of the
torture definition -- and thus keep himself and other top U.S. officials
out of the war-crimes court in The Hague -- Bush took a rare visit to
Congress last week to try to forestall defeat of his torture/military
tribunals bill. It was a definition struggle again.
The Geneva Convention on the treatment of captured prisoners is quite
clear and specific; no country is permitted to use "cruel" treatment or
"outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading
treatment" on prisoners in its care. Too "vague," says Bush. Instead, he
suggests, CIA interrogators need "latitude" (euphemism: "clarity") in
interrogating and torturing suspects so that they won't be nervously
looking over their shoulders at war-crimes charges.
The Pentagon's senior lawyers think Geneva's definitions are quite clear
and openly disagreed with the hardline Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld interpretation
of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention. Even Colin Powell bestirred
his calcified conscience to point out that by trying to do an end-around
Geneva, the U.S. risked losing the moral high ground internationally.
Also, as Sen. John McCain (who was tortured as a POW in Hanoi) and others
have pointed out, the U.S. would put its captured troops in great jeopardy
of "cruel and degrading" treatment -- in other words, torture -- similar
to what the CIA was meting out in its secret prisons abroad.
Republican "moderate" senators McCain, Graham, Snowe, Warner and others
have been demanding that the U.S. remain consistent with the Geneva
protections and also provide some legal safeguards to suspects on trial in
military tribunals. But time and time again, these so-called "moderates,"
under extreme Roveian pressure, have caved and given Bush what he wants.
As I write this, it's unclear whether they have the courage to stick to
their guns this time. We shall see. In the meantime, get this: Bush
threatened to close down the CIA's questioning of terrorist suspects
unless Congress approves his bill. Talk about cutting off your nation's
nose to spite your personal face! Blackmail as a pre-emptive veto.
THE IMMORALITY OF "PRE-EMPTION"
Let's move to another definition, at another level. Bush's National
Security Strategy asserts that the U.S. can "pre-emptively" attack another
country when it determines that country might possibly be thinking of
attacking America or grossly harming our interests. In the "old days" --
that is, pre-Bush -- the definition of "pre-emption" meant that a country,
in some circumstances, was permitted under international law to act first
when faced with an imminent threat of attack.
In Bushspeak, it doesn't matter that the countries in question might be 10
or 15 years out from being a viable threat, or that while they might be
antagonistic to U.S. policies they have no intent of ever actually
attacking America. No, according to the Bush Doctrine, you destroy
possible or potential enemies first, long before they have the chance to
even think of doing the U.S. harm.
That's one of the Administration's ex-post-facto justifications for having
invaded and occupied Iraq. Once the early rationales for attacking were
shown to be false -- those big lies including that Iraq had stockpiles of
WMD, and was allied with al-Qaida in the run-up to the 9/11 attacks --
then the Administration went back to its "pre-emption" rationalization, in
effect asserting: "We had to attack before Saddam got close to
reconstituting his weapons programs; even though U.S./U.K. intel was
confirming that Iraq was well-contained and that it could be 10 years
before they would be a believable threat to anybody, we had to act now, to
abort that development in its blastocyst stage before that potentially
dangerous fetus could grow and do us harm as an adult."
Transfer that rationalization theory to a trial for murder: "Your honor, I
cannot be convicted of murdering the victim by shooting him six times. I
fully believed he was thinking of doing me harm, maybe next year or the
year after that, and so I took him out pre-emptively. It was a clear case
of early self-defense." That explanation should satisfy a Bush
NO COURT REVIEW PERMITTED
Perhaps the most reprehensible aspect of the Administration's desperation
to avoid indictment for authorizing torture is a tactic they've used in
other areas as well: Trying to eliminate judicial review of their actions.
In taking this tack, they are making an open assault on the Constitution
and several centuries of governmental precedent.
Despite the fact that Bush&Co. have packed the Supreme Court and the
various appellate courts with their ideological brethren, they still don't
have total control of the legal system, and therefore want to avoid
judicial review whenever possible. They know how weak their Constitutional
cases are. So they have had their flunkies in Congress introduce a variety
of bills to prohibit court review of certain Administration policies and
laws -- as if the Supreme Court would ever OK having its judicial
But in the Administration's military-tribunals bill currently before
Congress, Bush&Co. also have inserted an in-your-face clause that would
prevent civilian courts from intervening in, or reviewing the legality of,
the proposed military tribunals. This would totally violate America's
historic checks-and-balances system of governance, and would amount to the
Executive Branch effectively controlling the Legislative and Judicial
branches of government. In short, a budding dictatorship.
previously, the Administration has created what they consider to be an
airtight legal justification for Bush to act outside the law whenever he
claims to be doing so as "commander-in-chief" during "wartime." Since his
"war on terrorism," by definition, is a never-ending war, this means his
actions "in defense of the homeland" permanently cannot be challenged.
Sounds like the ingredients for dictatorship.
THE COURT SLAPS DOWN BUSH
No wonder Bush is leery of courts ever getting near the justifications for
his imperial presidency. The two times when the Supreme Court did review
his behavior toward detainees in U.S. care, he was reprimanded mightily,
in no uncertain language.
In the 2004 case of Mr. Hamdi, a U.S. citizen, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor
wrote for the Court: "We have long since made clear that a state of war is
not a blank check for the President when it comes to the rights of the
Nation's citizens. ... Even the war power [of the President] does not
remove constitutional limitations safeguarding essential liberties."
In the recent case of Mr. Hamdan, a foreign suspect, the court slapped
down Bush's I-am-the-Law approach again. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote
for the majority: "[I]n undertaking to try Hamdan and subject him to
criminal punishment, the Executive is bound to comply with the Rule of Law
that prevails in this jurisdiction."
REVOLT OF THE MODERATE MIDDLE
The power to nominate new Supreme Court justices is just one of many
reasons w hy the momentum of this outlaw administration must be broken as
quickly as possible. Which brings us to the midterm elections in November.
The imminence of that election explains why Bush is trying to create a
rushed, "crisis" atmosphere to get his bill passed; after all, his
Administration could have brought these suspects to trial anytime within
the past five years. "We're running out of time," Bush says, by which he
really means: "We've got to get this issue neutralized now, before the
election, or else we can't smear the Democrats as pro-terrorist for
blocking my bill, since it will be Republicans, with military credentials,
who also are doing the obstructing."
Even if the GOP rebels hold their ground this one time, but especially if
they don't, the American people -- left, right and center -- must speak
with one enormous groundswell of revulsion against the ruling Republican
Party in the Congress that has rubber-stamped virtually everything
Bush&Co. have asked for. A convincing GOP defeat in the House would do
great damage to the Administration's momentum of lawlessness.
The current fracturing of the Republican Party in Congress is a testament
to the revolt of the moderate middle in America against the Bush
Administration's catastrophic bungling in Iraq, its demonstrated
incompetence in the Katrina debacle, its lies and deceits, its slimy
denunciations of those who oppose CheneyBush Iraq policy (which means
about two-thirds of the American people) as terrorist-supporting traitors,
If the GOP can be roundly trounced two months from now at the polls, its
defeat will be due in no small part to those honest, traditional
conservatives who, appalled by the hijacking of their once-great party by
extremists from the Far Right, are thoroughly fed up and have had enough
of misrule on a grand scale. (Note: This election, given Rove's previous
history, will require extreme vigilance, and probably court suits, to keep
the voting honest and honestly-counted.)
Let us all -- Democrats, Libertarians, Independents, progressives -- join
with these moderate Republicans, and start the process of moving our
country back to common decency, earned respect, and a sane foreign and
domestic policy based on reality and the true needs of the American
people. Can I hear an Amen?
Copyright 2006, by Bernard Weiner
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international
relations, has taught at various universities, worked as a writer/editor
with the San Francisco Chronicle for 19 years, and currently co-edits The
Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org). To comment: