History does not smile upon moments like these.
Last Saturday, President George W. Bush was presented with a Congressional bill that could have ended the torture debate in America.
The Intelligence Authorization Act set out to ban “alternative interrogation methods” that the CIA has used since 9/11 to gather information from the War on Terror’s “enemy combatants.” The bill would have specifically banned waterboarding, a centuries-old torture technique that simulates drowning, and forced the CIA’s interrogation program to adhere to the rules of the U.S. Army Field Manual.
As he had promised to do, Bush vetoed the anti-torture bill.
Bush’s veto leaves the door open for the CIA to engage in a wide variety of tactics identified as torture by the Geneva Conventions, and rests upon an all-too-familiar justification. Bush asserted in his weekend radio address that in order to keep America safe from future terrorist attacks, his administration and the CIA must have unobstructed freedom in their conduct of the War on Terror.
Bush even connected the absence of an attack on American soil since 9/11 to these very practices.
Bush’s defense of the CIA’s torture of its terror suspects — like his administration’s grand strategy for its War on Terror — is not just immoral, it is also misguided and ineffective. The use of such harsh methods to gather intelligence is simply not necessary, and it puts Americans more at risk by destroying our international image and fueling the flames of anti-Americanism abroad.
America’s treatment of its perceived enemies since 9/11 is leaving a dark legacy of unconstitutional human rights abuses in its wake. Outside of well-covered media topics like the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay prisons, little attention has been paid to the larger fact that the U.S. holds foreign terror suspects indefinitely, without formal charges or legal counsel, in the CIA’s “black site” prisons outside the US, and often subjects them to torture while they are imprisoned.
The list of Bush’s prominent detractors on the issue of waterboarding and torture includes not only Congressional Democrats and human rights groups, but also the FBI, Gen. David Petraeus and a long list of retired military generals and former secretaries of state who believe that such tactics are ineffective and put Americans at greater risk.
Petraeus, the highest military commander in Iraq, recently stated that the U.S. has no need to go outside the boundaries of legal military interrogation techniques, and that that the continuation of alternate forms of interrogation by the CIA will further jeopardize the safety of future American prisoners of war.
Beyond these immediate effects, America’s inhumane treatment of “enemy combatants” should be seen in terms of its effect on our deteriorating image in the world.
A perfect example of this administration’s disregard for winning over hearts and minds abroad comes with the story of Sami al-Hajj, a high-profile Al-Jazeera journalist who, despite no apparent ties to terrorism, has been detained at Guantanamo Bay without trial since 2001.
It is hard to imagine a more well-connected, sympathetic figure for Al-Jazeera’s 50-million-strong Arabic-language audience to rally around in united, anti-American outrage.
Bush’s veto of the anti-torture bill must be viewed through a wider historical lens. This single executive action fits very neatly into the disastrous presidential legacy he is currently putting the finishing touches on.
Like many of the administration’s past War on Terror policy decisions — his recent defense of domestic wiretapping jumps to mind — the constitutionality of Bush’s support for the CIA’s secret interrogation and detention programs is murky as best. It also gives his administration unlimited power to conduct wartime programs without transparency, and is rationalized by a single push of the 9/11 panic button.
But perhaps most importantly, the veto’s justification fits within the administration’s official narrative of the War on Terror as a simple battle between good and evil, and leaves little room for critical thought about how this war is carried out or why such rabid anti-Americanism has taken root in much of the world.