Bush Gesture to McCain: Less than Meets the Eye

    In deciding not to follow through on his threat to veto Sen. John McCain’s amendment against torture, Bush actually surrendered very little. Torture is still in the eyes of the beholders in the defense and intelligence communities.

    The unseemly spectacle of Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush openly opposing the McCain amendment banning torture for a torturous five months has done irreparable harm to America’s standing abroad. The damage will not be attenuated by the president’s reluctant acquiescence to the McCain amendment yesterday. The most that can be said is that the harm would have been still greater if McCain caved in to Cheney’s incredibly obtuse opposition, or if Bush had to veto must-pass defense legislation in order to defeat the amendment.

    The Bush-McCain compromise changes very little. The interrogation practices banned are limited to those not authorized by the United States Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation, which can be – is being – revised. The New York Times reported on Wednesday that the Army has approved a 10-page secret addendum to the Army field manual, a move that one Pentagon official described as “a stick in McCain’s eye.” McCain’s chief of staff minced no words in describing the move as “politically obtuse” and undertaken without “one molecule of political due diligence.”

    The new manual, to be issued this month, spells out authorized interrogation techniques, but these remain classified. Having faced down Cheney, it will be interesting to see if McCain’s courage extends to facing down Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s transparent attempt to vitiate the amendment. Or will McCain and his congressional colleagues settle for a Potemkin-village-type victory, and leave the field for the clever lawyers around Cheney and Rumsfeld. The pleasant noises that McCain was making yesterday and premature comments of eager-to-please Jane Harmon, vice-chair of the House Intelligence Committee, suggest that, in the end, most legislators will settle for Potemkin.

    The Crooks and the Crux

    One Army officer involved bemoaned the fact that confusion persists because of lack of clarity on what constitutes torture. “‘Cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment’ is at the crux of the problem,” he said, “but we’ve never defined that.”

    The section of the McCain amendment applying to CIA and other civilian interrogators also hinges on what qualifies as cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, but the amendment’s attempt to define it by referring to provisions in the US Constitution and the UN convention against torture leaves ample room for ambiguity and wide interpretation.

    Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said yesterday that the dispute between the White House and McCain was over “what constitutes cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment” and used the rhetorical device of reductio ad absurdam, pointing out, “In some countries … those words mean you can’t even insult someone when you question them.” Appearing on CNN, Gonzales added:

    “Congress has defined what torture is, and it is intentional infliction of severe – I emphasize the word severe – intentional infliction of severe physical or mental pain or suffering.”

    Gonzales would not say whether this definition would include waterboarding. Those watching CNN will not have much reason to believe that anything has changed.

    National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said yesterday that his negotiations with McCain centered on providing legal protection for interrogators. McCain had said earlier that granting such protection would undermine his amendment, but under the compromise with the White House, CIA officers and other civilians accused of abuse in interrogation would be able to argue that they believed they were obeying a legal order and would have the right to government counsel. In practice, this will make it very difficult to hold anyone accountable in US courts. A prosecutor would have to prove that a higher-up’s orders were so unreasonable that they fit the category of Nazi atrocities.

    No effort has been made to disguise what lies behind the administration’s position. Even Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a lawyer who has been considered a moderate on the issue of torture, has conceded that the “problem” is to find a way to protect interrogators who go too far. Perhaps it is my lack of legal training, but I do not think one can square this circle. There remains too much of a disconnect, for example, between the “we-do-not-torture” rhetoric and, for example, Gonzales’s refusal to rule out waterboarding.

    Other Fallout
• Dick Cheney, dubbed “Vice President for Torture” by the New York Times has been dealt a resolute rebuff. His open advocacy of torture, coming on the heels of the indictment of his chief of staff, has put a huge chink in his armor. Today’s revelations that he played a key role in the latest scandal, the use of the National Security Agency for warrant-less eavesdropping on US citizens, could be strike three. Despite the president’s protestations that the two have never been closer, Bush may soon be forced to put a considerable distance between himself and his éminence grise.

• The imperial presidency has been struck a blow – not fatal yet, but nonetheless damaging. Congress has summoned the courage to face Cheney and the president down, at least overtly, and that chips away at the image of invulnerability carefully cultivated by the administration. Congress people and Senators seem newly aware that their oath is to the Constitution, not the White House, and this can spell big trouble in the months ahead.

• The press is beginning to act like a responsible fourth estate. True, the New York Times sat on the NSA story for a whole year, but it was published before the final vote on the so-called Patriot Act – perhaps even in time to have some impact.

• After two years of intimidation by what happened to Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife Valerie, patriots within the national security establishment are showing a new willingness to reveal abuses to the press. “According to current and former intelligence officials” has become familiar attribution in major stories that blow the whistle on abuses and deceit.

• The George W. Bush White House is no longer the well-honed machine it once was. Clearly, Karl Rove and Dick Cheney are preoccupied with their legal problems, and the gaping hole left by their lack of timely advice has left the president to his own devices. His failure to do the smart thing last summer and meet with Cindy Sheehan, his identification with Cheney’s doomed stance on torture, his recent off-the-cuff appraisal of Iraqi casualties, his gratuitous remark that Donald Rumsfeld is doing “a heck of a job” (like the late Michael Brown of FEMA?) – all attest to a lack of adult supervision these days at the White House. And as Libby goes to trial, and if Karl Rove is indicted, things are likely to get still more dicey.

    Ray McGovern works for Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. He was a CIA analyst for 27 years and is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

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