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To Torture or Not?
President Bush backs ‘rendering’ suspects—then backs off
A U.S. detainee at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba
Oct. 5 – President Bush today distanced himself from his administration’s quiet effort to push through a law that would make it easier to send captured terror suspects to countries where torture is used. The proposed law, recently tacked onto a much larger bill despite the fallout from last spring’s interrogation scandal, is seen as an attempt to counter a recent Supreme Court decision that would free some terror detainees being held without trial.
In a letter published in The Washington Post, White House legal counsel Alberto Gonzales said the president “did not propose and does not support” a provision to the House bill that removes legal protections from suspects preventing their “rendering” to foreign governments known to torture prisoners. Gonzales said Bush “has made clear that the United States stands against and will not tolerate torture.”
But John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who introduced the bill last Friday, said the provision had actually been requested by the Department of Homeland Security. “For whatever reason,” Feehery said, “the White House has decided they don’t want to take this on because they’re afraid of the political implications.”
He said the provision, mainly laid out in Section 3032 and 3033 , was designed as a way of addressing the problem created by last summer’s Supreme Court decision. The justices ruled that the administration couldn’t detain people indefinitely without trial or charges. As a result, the government has ordered the release of suspects such as Yaser Hamdi, a dual citizen of the United States and Saudi Arabia who was captured in Afghanistan and held for three years as an enemy combatant.
Now, Feehery said, “we’ve got a situation where we’ve got these people in the country who ought not to be in the country. We have to release them because of the Supreme Court case. So Homeland Security wanted this provision.”
Department of Homeland Security spokesman Garrison Courtney said he believed the proposed legislation was little more than a “clarification” of existing law. But some human-rights groups vehemently disagreed. The New York Bar Association, in a statement, said current U.S. regulations enacted under the Convention against Torture prohibit deporting any individual to a country where “more likely than not” the person will be tortured. A person can be deported only after a finding that torture is no longer likely cut . By contrast, the bar association said, the new bill would actually “mandate deportation of such an individual to a country even if it is certain that [he] would be tortured there.”
The provision amounts to “a tacit approval of torture,” the association said, and “is particularly shocking in the aftermath of the recent revelations of torture by U.S. personnel in Iraq.”
Responding to the Bar Association’s criticism, Jeff Lungren of the House Judiciary Committee said some 500 detainees have been released since the summer because of the Supreme Court decision. He said the bill wwas necessary because “the safety and security of the American public is being subjugated to the interests of serious criminals and terrorists.”
Feehery said Hastert still supported the provision in spite of Gonzales’ letter. The letter was written in response to a Sept. 30 story in The Washington Post that quoted Feehery as saying the Justice Department “really wants and supports” the provision, which is only a tiny part of a giant-intelligence reform bill.
Feehery told Newsweek on Tuesday that, at the time he spoke to the Post reporter, he believed that Justice had sought the provision, but now believes it actually was DHS. Justice spokesman Mark Corallo also said it was Homeland Security’s call. “It’s their issue,” Corallo said. “They’re the immigration people now. Not us.”
© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.