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More Ambiguity About Torture

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, July 12, 2006; 1:28 PM

The White House spin yesterday on the reinstatement of Geneva Convention protections for all U.S. detainees -- that it's not a reversal, and won't really change anything -- is another example of the self-contradicting ambiguity that has been a hallmark of this administration's position on torture and inhumane conduct.

On the one hand, the spin suggests that the administration has no intention of revising the policies that have been in force during a sordid cavalcade of incidents that have shocked the conscience of ordinary citizens.

And on the other hand, it contradicts the administration's previous, passionate insistence that granting the convention's protections to suspected terrorists could, in some cases, conflict with what it has called military necessity.

The White House's adherence to undefined and yet seemingly inconsistent rhetoric should come as no surprise to anyone who's been following this story.

This is the same White House, after all, that insisted that "we don't torture" when, by any normal human standard, we did. It's the same White House that insisted that "we don't torture" but refused to say what it meant by "we" or "torture."

See, for instance, my columns from November 8, 2005, and June 11, 2004 .

So what does the return to Geneva standards really mean? Beyond the political posturing, there is a reality. In that reality, Americans have abused, tortured and even killed detainees in their custody.

Is that behind us now? Whatever else the White House has accomplished, it certainly hasn't clear that up one bit.

Bowing to Convention

Charles Babington and Michael Abramowitz write in The Washington Post: "The Pentagon announced yesterday that it has called on military officials to adhere to the conventions in dealing with al-Qaeda detainees. The administration also has decided that even prisoners held by the CIA in secret prisons abroad must be treated in accordance with international standards, an interpretation that would prohibit prisoners from being subjected to harsh treatment in interrogations, several U.S. officials said. . . .

"Administration officials indicated that they had little choice but to act in the aftermath of that Supreme Court ruling. They disputed the suggestion that the new Pentagon policy represents significant change, because the administration already said that it treats detainees humanely. . . .

"The practical impact of the policy is uncertain. Legislation approved last year over Bush's objections bars the use of cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment against detainees, approximating what is in the Geneva Conventions. Some military lawyers, however, said they think the memo will remove a certain ambiguity about what military interrogators may do in the name of extracting information."

Mark Mazzetti and Kate Zernike write in the New York Times: "The new White House interpretation is likely to have sweeping implications, because it appears to apply to all Qaeda and Taliban terror suspects now in the custody of the Central Intelligence Agency or other American intelligence organizations around the world. . . .

"Mr. Bush's order of Feb. 7, 2002, issued shortly after American-led forces toppled the Taliban government in Afghanistan, specifically said that critical aspects of the Geneva Conventions do 'not apply to either Al Qaeda or Taliban detainees.'

"In response to a question, the White House issued a statement late Tuesday, saying: 'As a result of the Supreme Court decision, that portion of the order no longer applies. The Supreme Court has clarified what the law is, and the executive branch will comply.' "

The New York Times highlights previous administration statements now rendered inoperative.

A key passage from that 2002 presidential memo: "I hereby reaffirm the order previously issued by the secretary of defense to the United States Armed Forces requiring that the detainees be treated humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity , in a manner consistent with the principles of Geneva." My italics.

Carol Rosenberg and Margaret Talev write for McClatchy Newspapers: "The two-page Pentagon memo repudiates a core element of the legal foundation of President Bush's approach to dealing with terrorism. Bush and his legal advisers initially had said the Geneva Conventions didn't apply to the war on terrorism because it was a new type of conflict that demanded more aggressive action.

"In a 2002 memo , then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales told Bush that this nontraditional war 'renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions.'

"Vice President Dick Cheney and White House spokesmen made clear in many public statements since 2002 that they didn't think that terrorism suspects deserved the rights that the Geneva Conventions granted to enemy soldiers. At the same time, Bush has said repeatedly that his administration is committed to complying with the Geneva Conventions, but he's also reserved the right to waive them if he sees fit as commander in chief. . . .

"In claiming an exemption from the international law on prisoners' rights, Bush said the United States nevertheless would adhere to the Geneva Conventions' standards as a matter of policy. The distinction is subtle, but critics said it signaled interrogators that they could push the limits of acceptable behavior when dealing with terrorism suspects."

Peter Spiegel and Maura Reynolds write in the Los Angeles Times: "The Pentagon acknowledged that the Supreme Court decision had forced its hand, and ordered that all personnel and policies adhere to the convention's standards.

"But the administration at the same time gave almost no ground. The Pentagon said that other than the military commissions struck down last month, all of its other detainee policies -- from interrogations to medical treatment -- already complied with the convention's strictures. Critics have assailed administration interrogation and detention techniques as illegal under U.S. and international law, including convention standards."

Questions of Implementation

Adam Zagorin writes for Time that "many questions remain about how the Pentagon will implement the new policy."

That's an understatement.

Zagorin writes: "Among the first Administration officials to make that point was Steven Bradbury, acting assistant attorney general of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He stressed that the Geneva Convention -- which requires humane treatment as well as trials with legal rights for all prisoners -- is unclear and open to interpretation: 'The application of common Article 3 [of the Geneva Convention] will create a degree of uncertainty for those who fight to defend us from terrorist attack.' "

Thomas E. Ricks writes in The Washington Post: " 'It's a significant change in my view because the troops on the ground in Iraq have never been sure it was a requirement' to observe the Geneva rules, said Gary D. Solis, a former Marine Corps infantry commander who is an expert on the law of war. 'It sets the philosophic tone for our soldiers and Marines.'

"For years, . . . experts said, U.S. military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan were operating under guidelines that were not clear. As prisoners were taken in Afghanistan late in 2001 and early in 2002, for example, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that the United States 'for the most part' was treating the prisoners 'in a manner that is reasonably consistent with the Geneva Convention.' But he said that it was not required to do so, because the detainees are 'unlawful combatants' who 'do not have any rights under the Geneva Convention.'

"This murkiness has been cited by some critics of the administration's operations in Iraq as contributing to a culture of abuse that led to inhumane treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison and other sites."

Tom Brune in Newsday quotes a skeptic: " 'It is all depends on what the meaning of humane is,' said Georgetown law professor David Cole, a human rights critic of the White House.

"Pentagon interrogation policy, Cole said, permits activities such as use of dogs for intimidation, forced nudity and making men wear women's underwear.

" 'I don't think any international scholar, or indeed any other country, would think those kind of tactics would be humane,' Cole said."

Scott Shane , in the New York Times, quotes Martin S. Lederman, a former Justice Department official now at the Georgetown University law school.

" 'The administration has fought tooth and nail for four years to say Common Article 3 does not apply to Al Qaeda,' Mr. Lederman said. 'Having lost that fight, I'm afraid they're now saying, "Never mind, we've been in compliance with Article 3 all along." ' "

Lederman himself writes on his blog that the administration conveniently defines "humane treatment" as whatever it is doing.

Blogger Andrew Sullivan writes: "As so often with Cheney and Rumsfeld, their mastery of bureaucratic warfare and political dissembling requires maximal skepticism toward anything coming from this administration."

Novak Reveals Little

Syndicated columnist Robert Novak broke his long, self-imposed silence in a column today, writing that special prosecutor "Patrick Fitzgerald has informed my attorneys that, after 2-1/2 years, his investigation of the CIA leak case concerning matters directly relating to me has been concluded. That frees me to reveal my role in the federal inquiry that, at the request of Fitzgerald, I have kept secret."

Novak had refused to discuss his role long after all the other reporters in the case went public. Ironically, the only significant revelation in his column is that he secretly revealed his sources to Fitzgerald long before the other reporters did.

Although he writes that he was uncomfortable with the blanket waivers signed by his sources, he writes that when Fitzgerald presented them to him, he unloaded without a fight.

Novak, of course, was the first to out Valerie Plame as a CIA operative, in a negative column about her husband, administration critic and former ambassador Joseph Wilson.

Although he hadn't said so publicly before, it has long been known that Novak cooperated with Fitzgerald, that his second source for Plame's identity was presidential guru Karl Rove, and that he also had a conversation about Plame with CIA spokesman Bill Harlow.

Novak writes today: "I have revealed Rove's name because his attorney has divulged the substance of our conversation, though in a form different from my recollection. I have revealed Harlow's name because he has publicly disclosed his version of our conversation, which also differs from my recollection. My primary source has not come forward to identify himself."

What are those differences?

Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post spoke with Novak. "Novak recalls Rove saying, 'Oh, you know that, too?' Rove, according to [spokesman Mark] Corallo, has said he responded, 'I've heard that, too.'

"Harlow, who declined to comment yesterday, has told The Post that he challenged aspects of Novak's account three days before the column was published and warned the columnist that if he did write about Wilson's Niger trip, Plame's name should not be revealed. Novak said he has a different recollection of the conversation.

" 'I certainly wouldn't have used her name if anyone had indicated she might be in danger,' Novak said."

Here's a New York Times timeline of the case, including Novak's role.

In today's column, Novak writes: "In my sworn testimony, I said what I have contended in my columns and on television: Joe Wilson's wife's role in instituting her husband's mission was revealed to me in the middle of a long interview with an official who I have previously said was not a political gunslinger. After the federal investigation was announced, he told me through a third party that the disclosure was inadvertent on his part."

But that conflicts with an interview he gave to Newsday just eight days after his original column came out.

Timothy M. Phelps and Knut Royce wrote back then: "Novak, in an interview, said his sources had come to him with the information. 'I didn't dig it out, it was given to me,' he said. 'They thought it was significant, they gave me the name and I used it.' "

As The Washington Post's Walter Pincus told Chris Matthews on MSNBC last night, the biggest revelation in today's column is how early Novak divulged his sources: "Back in February 2004, before any of the rest of the reporters came forward."

The GAO on Iraq

Agence France Presse reports: "The investigative arm of the US Congress has openly questioned if victory in Iraq can be achieved without a significant overhaul of President George W. Bush's strategy, arguing the outcome of the war was presently 'unclear.'

"The findings by the Government Accountability Office mark the first time a non-partisan US government agency publicly doubted whether the geo-strategic undertaking that Bush made the defining element of his presidency, could be successful.

" 'It is unclear how the United States will achieve its desired end-state in Iraq given the significant changes in the assumptions underlying the US strategy,' the GAO wrote in its report unveiled Tuesday at a hearing in the House of Representatives."

Christina Bellantoni writes in the Washington Times: "David M. Walker, the U.S. comptroller general, told lawmakers that President Bush did not give proper consideration to conditions on the ground and said the administration is not demanding accountability for the $1.5 billion per week that the United States spends in Iraq. . . .

"The GAO report recommends that the National Security Council outline a comprehensive strategy for Iraq with 'milestones' and 'metrics' so Congress can assess the progress and the problems on the ground."

Here's the full report , which is largely an analysis of the White House's glossy National Strategy for Victory in Iraq brochure. (See my December 1 column .)

Some of the problems, according to the GAO report: "First, the original plan assumed a permissive security environment, which never materialized. . . . Second, the United States assumed that its U.S.-funded reconstruction activities would help restore Iraq's essential services -- oil production, electricity generation, and water treatment -- to prewar levels. However, U.S. efforts to achieve this goal have been hindered by security, management, and maintenance challenges that undermine efforts to improve the lives of the Iraqi people. . . . Third, the strategy assumes that the Iraqi government and international community will help finance Iraq's development needs."

You know, little things like that.

Karl Rove Watch

Teresa Watanabe and Michael Finnegan write in the Los Angeles Times: "White House political strategist Karl Rove touted 'shared values' of faith and family and reiterated President Bush's support of broad immigration reform in a Los Angeles address Tuesday to one of the nation's largest Latino civil rights organizations."

Voting Rights Watch

Peter Wallsten and Johanna Neuman write in the Los Angeles Times: "In an intensely competitive election year, this was supposed to be the issue virtually everyone in Congress could agree on: renewing civil rights-era laws protecting minorities' access to the ballot box.

"But on the cusp of a vote scheduled for Thursday that White House strategists and other top Republicans once hoped would symbolize a GOP eager to attract more blacks and Latinos, a group of increasingly vocal Capitol Hill conservatives is staging a revolt -- arguing that certain provisions of the law are out of sync with party principles and are insulting to the South. . . .

"And the dispute is erupting at the same time that White House officials are deciding whether Bush this weekend should make his first speech since taking office to the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation's oldest and biggest civil rights organization."

Deficit Watch

"Some in Washington say we had to choose between cutting taxes and cutting the deficit," Bush said in his speech on budget issues yesterday. "Today's numbers show that that was a false choice."

So David Wessel of the Wall Street Journal asks: "Do Tax Cuts Pay for Themselves?

"Not if you read the fine print in the new White House midsession review of budget trends."

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times that "the government's overall fiscal health remains far worse than when Mr. Bush took office in 2001. Back then the government had run surpluses in four consecutive years, and forecasters were predicting trillions of dollars in surplus over the coming decade."

New PR Guy

The White House yesterday announced the high-profile appointment of Kevin Sullivan as Bush's new director of communications, replacing Nicolle Wallace.

Sullivan has been communications director at the Department of Education, and before that was NBC Universal's chief spokesman. He previously worked at NBC Sports and did PR for the Dallas Mavericks.

Off to Europe

William Douglas writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "President Bush returns to Europe on Wednesday for the second time in three weeks, this time for the annual summit of wealthy democracies, where nuclear standoffs with Iran and North Korea are likely to take center stage -- unless Bush's relationship with the host, Russian President Vladimir Putin, turns confrontational."

Confrontation? Putin?

MSBNC reports: "President Vladimir Putin lashed out at Vice President Dick Cheney ahead of this weekend's G-8 summit, calling his recent criticisms of Russia 'an unsuccessful hunting shot,' according to a television interview being broadcast Wednesday.

"The remark, from an interview with 'Today' show anchor Matt Lauer, referred to the shotgun blast by Cheney on a hunting trip that accidentally wounded a companion."

The trip starts with pleasantries, however.

Mark Silva blogs for the Chicago Tribune: "One pauses to wonder whether President Bush will find more delight in the ceremonial barrel of herring that he receives upon arrival in the old market square of Stralsund or in the wild game boar that a restaurateur named Olaf in Trinwillershagen plans to personally bag for the president and serve at a German barbecue with Bush's host, Chancellor Angela Merkel."

Hey Junior

Ken Herman blogs for Cox News Service: "The official website for this weekend's G8 meeting in St. Petersburg incorrectly identifies the U.S. leader as George W. Bush Jr."

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