Thursday, April 03, 2008

Toward monarchical/dictatorial power

The most interesting and potentially troubling news yesterday was the release of former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo's March 2003 memorandum on the use of "enhanced" interrogation techniques, including measures that any civilized person would define as torture by the military during the ill-defined and malleable "war on terror." Here's the Register's editorial on the subject. The most alarming aspect of the memo is that Yoo (now a professor at UC Berkeley) posits a concept of presidential power during wartime that is virtually unlimited and capable of overriding or ignoring both U.S. law and international treaties.

As I have noted about previous memos from various Justice Dept. lawyers during the reign of Bush, this one reads like something a consigliere to a Mafia Don might put together to let the Godfather do whatever foul thing he wanted while skating right up to the edge of the law (at least as it would be presented by an aggressive defense attorney). It seems obvious now that the Bushies were fascinated with the idea of using torture and wanted to do it, especially when some of the al-Qaida detainees at Guantanamo resisted more ordinary interrogation techniques.

Two things, and I'll throw in links to other peoples' takes. This memo and others like it suggest that the Bushies were moving aggressively, and still are, to enhance executive power (something that has been an obsession of Cheney's since Watergate) way beyond the proper constitutional scope in anything resembling a republic. One commentator suggested that if they had their way the president would be like a pre-Magna Carta king. The treaties and laws that this memo says can be ignored in wartime were written specifically to apply during wartime. This issue of expanded executive authority should be an issue in the general election campaign. Typically, presidents are more than happy to exercise whatever expanded authority previous presidents have arrogated to themselves, though they might use them for different purposes. Barack and Hillary (I suspect McCain is hopeless, but he should be asked anyway) should be asked whether they will roll back the executive power Bush has seized.

Second, the evidence, based on what we know of techniques at Guantanamo, is that torture doesn't work to get reliable intelligence. The CIA says Khalid Sheikh Muhammad gave reliable information, and it might be so, but generally detainees under torture give what they think the interrogator wants to hear to make it stop, which may or may not be reliable, especially if they're trained. And Detainee 063 at Guantanamo, whose resistance to "normal" interrogation was a factor ig the government wanting to move toward torture, according to this invaluable Vanity Fair piece, still refused to offer anything useful after being tortured for seven months.

All right, one more thing. It's becoming clear that the most likely hypothesis (not yet utterly proven and we may never know) that the impetus for torture came from the top down rather than arising from pleas from those running prisons or being the work entirely of "rogue" military people at Abu Ghraib and other prisons. It makes me weep for my country.

Glenn Greenwald's response was invaluable. He's right that John Yoo should be shunned by decent people rather than treated as respectable. Here's Scott Horton arguing that the memo should never have been kept secret, and certainly not for five years. The AP studied the footnotes and found evidence of other memos. This is only the tip of the iceberg of the Bushies' systematic assault on civil liberties.

And here's the memo itself, in PDF format. It's 81 pages. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Part Four. Decide for yourself.

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