Alberto “Obsolete & Quaint” Gonzales Tries to Defend Himself

, Alberto “Obsolete & Quaint” Gonzales appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is considering his nomination to Attorney General.

Alberto Gonzales, President Bush’s Attorney General nominee, told the Senate Judiciary Committee today that he would state only his name, rank, date of birth and Air Force serial number, which is all that is required under the terms of the Geneva Conventions.

Mr. Gonzales, who faces criticism from Democrat senators over a memo he wrote seeking to clarify whether the Geneva Conventions apply to terror suspects, refused to answer further questions from committee members at his confirmation hearing.

White House spokesman Trent Duffy said President Bush hopes Senators will, at least, treat Mr. Gonzales according to Article 14 of the Third Geneva Convention, which states: “Prisoners of war are entitled in all circumstances to respect for their persons and their honour.”

Mr. Gonzales’ refusal to answer Senators’ questions did not affect the committee’s inquiry, which consists primarily of speeches to a gathering of journalists.

But seriously, folks… today’s Picket Line collects some of what this confirmation hearing has brought out.

As a leading architect of Bush’s ends-justifies-means war on terror, Gonzales pushed to justify torturing terror suspects in violation of international law, promoted military tribunals that echo Stalin’s show trials, helped write the Patriot Act (which, among other powers, gives government agents vast new snooping authority) and excused the limitless imprisonment of American citizens whom the president merely suspects of terror activity.

Three years into that war, much of Gonzales’ handiwork has been rejected by courts, damned by the world community and disavowed by the administration — as in the Justice Department memo quietly released last week declaring that “torture is abhorrent to both American law and values and to international norms.”…

Gonzales’ record as White House counsel is not just a series of unfortunate missteps; rather, it is a troubling window into the man’s morality and his fitness to be the nation’s chief lawyer.

Los Angeles Times editorial

You know how bad the situation is when the president’s choice for attorney general has to formally pledge not to support torture anymore.…

Just to get things started on the right foot, though, Mr. Gonzales planned to go the extra mile and offer the quaint, obsolete Senate Democrats a more nuanced explanation of why he called the Geneva Conventions “quaint” and “obsolete.”

Before he helped President Bush circumvent the accords and reserve the right to do so “in this or future conflicts,” you had to tune in to an old movie with Nazi generals or Vietcong guards if you wanted to see someone sneeringly shrug off the international treaty protecting prisoners from abuse. (“You worthless running dog Chuck Norris! What do we care about your silly Geneva Conventions?”)

―Maureen Dowd

In Gonzales’s opening statement yesterday, here is how he chose to address the torture issue:

After the attacks of , our government had fundamental decisions to make concerning how to apply treaties and U.S. law to an enemy that does not wear a uniform, owes no allegiance to any country, is not a party to any treaties and — most importantly — does not fight according to the laws of war. As we have debated these questions, the president has made clear that he is prepared to protect and defend the Untied States and its citizens, and will do so vigorously, but always in a manner consistent with our nation’s values and applicable law, including our treaty obligations. I pledge that, if I am confirmed as attorney general, I will abide by those commitments.

The first sentence is the classic “he hit me first” gambit well-known to grade school children everywhere. The second sentence is a flat-out lie, since we now have plenty of evidence that when it comes to torture, the president has been vigorous in his attempts to evade “our nation’s values and applicable law,” and that Gonzales was happy to help. Prefixing a pledge (sentence #3) with a lie isn’t the best way to make a pledge sound convincing.

Responding to Ezra Klein at Pandagon, who said…

[B]arring a miracle of competence and media responsibility, opposing torture will end up making the Democrats look like we get the vapors whenever the menfolk whip out the cigars and talk terrorism.… ¶ Doesn’t matter. Torture just isn’t something you compromise on. I’m as coldly political as the next guy, but not torture. That’s not part of the country I grew up believing in.

…Digby, at Hullabaloo responds with an appeal to patriotism, values, and good old-fashioned spine:

But, you see, the mere act of finally drawing that line in the sand, of saying “No More” is the very thing that refutes the charge. It’s hemming and hawing and splitting the difference and “meeting halfway” and offering compromises on matters of principle that makes the charge of Democratic spinelessness believable.…

It’s not that I believe that all Americans are horrified, or even a majority of Americans are horrified. Clearly, the dittoheads think it is just ducky. But that isn’t the point. Just because they aren’t horrified or even endorse it on some level doesn’t mean that they don’t know that it’s wrong.…

Every person alive in America today grew up with the belief that torture is wrong. Popular culture, religion, folklore and every other form of cultural instruction for decades in this country has taught that it is wrong, from sermons and lectures to films about slavery to photographs of Auschwitz to crime shows about serial killers. It is embedded in our consciousness. We teach our children that it is wrong to torture animals and other kids. We don’t say that there are exceptions for when the animals or kids are really, really bad. We have laws on the books that outright outlaw it. The words “cruel and unusual” are written into our constitution.…

The arguments for torture being raised by the right are rationalizations for what they know is immoral and illegal conduct. Their discomfort with the subject clearly indicates that they don’t really want to defend it. (Witness the pathetic dance that even that S&M freak Rush Limbaugh had to do after his comments were widely disseminated.) Will they admit that they know it’s wrong? Of course not. But when they take up their manly jihad and accuse the Democrats of being swooning schoolgirls they will also be forced to positively defend something that many of them know very well is indefensible. And every time they do that their credibility on values and morals is chipped away a little bit.

I don’t expect them to change their tune. Way too much of this comes from a defect in temperament and garden variety racism and that’s not going to go away. But Democrats have to thicken their skins and be prepared for the usual attacks and insist over and over again that it is against the values and principles of the United States to torture people, period. It is not only right, it is smart.

As I wrote below, the opposition will bluster and fidget and scream bloody murder. But listen to the tenor of their arguments. The WSJ article below rails against the “glib abuse of the word [torture]” as if they can run away from the issue by engaging in a game of semantics. They are reduced to claiming that unless we torture it will be unilateral disarmament. We, the most powerful military force the world has ever known, will be defeated by a bunch of third world religious misfits if we don’t engage in torturing suspects. Just who sounds weak?

But, instead, it was a Republican Senator (and a war hawk to boot) who made this point. From Senator Lindsey Graham’s opening comments:

I think we’ve dramatically undermined the war effort by getting on the slippery slope in terms of playing cute with the law, because it’s come back to bite us. Abu Ghraib has hurt us in many ways. I travel throughout the world like the rest of the members of the Senate, and I can tell you it is a club that our enemies use, and we need to take that club out of their hand. Guantanamo Bay, the way it’s been run has hurt the war effort. So if we’re going to win this war, Judge Gonzales, we need friends and we need to recapture the moral high ground… And to those who think that the Geneva Convention is a nicety or that taking torture off the table is naïve and a sign of weakness… I think you weaken yourself as a nation when you try to play cute and become more like your enemy instead of like who you want to be.

The Senators had the curious idea to call in somebody who knows a thing or two about torture, Douglas A. Johnson, Executive Director of the Center for Victims of Torture, who said:

The Bybee memorandum of is particularly egregious and dangerous. The overall tone of the Bybee memorandum restricts the definition of torture so narrowly that it could be used to justify various forms of torture. One of the most problematic conclusions of that memo was the notion that “These statutes suggest that ‘severe pain’ … would ordinarily be associated with a sufficiently serious physical condition or injury such as death, organ failure, or serious impairment of body functions — in order to constitute torture.“

When I first read this statement, I was reminded of our interactions with Vietnamese reeducation camp survivors recently arrived as refugees to the United States in . They had been through horrific experiences that any reasonable person would understand to be torture with regard to direct physical coercion, conditions of malnutrition, and intentionally malevolent prison conditions. Their symptoms were consistent with those of other survivors of torture we had seen from Cuba, Central and South America, Africa and Eastern Europe, and from Cambodia. Yet we discovered that the Vietnamese word for torture literally meant “dying under torment.” As they survived and still lived, it stood to reason that in their minds they were not “tortured.” They didn’t have the concepts within their language to interpret and understand what had happened to them. Bybee’s definition for torture appears to be “dying under torment.” If we used this definition, the Center for Victims of Torture wouldn’t have clients at all.

The second extraordinary claim was that torture occurs only when the intent was to cause pain, rather than that pain was intentionally used to gain information or confessions: “the infliction of such (severe) pain must be the defendant’s precise objective.” In other words, only when a sadist carried out techniques that lead to organ failure and death can we call it torture.

This is not only a wrong definition from a legal point of view, it is morally wrong, and it is against American values. With a definition like this, we can not retrieve the historic leadership role that the United States has played in the global campaign against torture. We are thankful that the new Justice Administration memorandum of recognizes the errors of the earlier memorandum and corrects some of them. We wish that it had not taken so long to do so. After the Bybee definition was solicited, accepted, and circulated by Gonzales, hundreds of detainees under U.S. control have suffered from torture and inhumane and degrading treatment.…

By confusing the criminal code definition with a guide to policy, Mr. Bybee twisted its content to become an advisory on how to avoid criminal prosecution. The U.S. understanding of torture must be more inclusive than that needed to keep our interrogators out of jail. It should be based on a clear view of the standards of human dignity that we stand for in the world.

The Memorandum of the Office of the Legal Counsel of the Justice Department recognizes some of the errors of the Bybee memorandum, in particular the definition of torture as pain equivalent in intensity to pain accompanying serious physical injury such as organ failure or death. It also clearly states that torture is abhorrent to both the American law and values and to international norms. But the new memo is problematic in other ways. It assiduously refuses to provide a broad view of the appropriate standards for conduct of interrogations or detention. In this sense, it does not escape the narrow focus on criminal prosecution that I discussed above. It gives the impression that the Office of the Legal Counsel is not concerned with conduct which qualifies as “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” The Torture Convention and U.S. law prohibit both torture and inhuman and degrading treatment. The memo just says that torture is prohibited and then works with a narrow definition of torture. We need top legal experts also to say what we stand for, not just what we are against. What we stand for is clearly stated in Article 10 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which we have ratified without reservation: “All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.” The memo is also unclear about whether it applies to Guantánamo, Afghanistan, or Iraq, at a time when we are in great need of clarity on exactly those issues. Finally, the new memo evades the question of whether the President has the authority to order that torture be inflicted. It says it doesn’t have to deal with that issue because the President has stated an unequivocal directive that U.S. personnel not engage in torture. But this leaves the impression that the President (or Secretary of Defense) could change his mind and ignore the limits on torture. But in light of continuing evidence that the President’s directive has not been followed in the field, there is still a need for a stronger statement that U.S. and international law prohibit torture and inhuman and degrading treatment and must be followed in all circumstances.

Would that it were so:

SEN. COBURN: And is it, to your knowledge, a policy of this administration at any time to tolerate torture or inhumane behavior towards any of the detainees that we have?

MR. GONZALES: It is — it is not the policy of the administration to tolerate torture or inhumane conduct toward any person that the United States is detaining.

Senators tried fruitlessly to pin Gonzales down on whether or not he believes in the legendary “Commander-in-Chief override” with which a president can ignore any law or treaty if he does so in the course of his Constitutional war-making powers. The most Gonzales would say was that the part of the memo that endorsed this doctrine had been withdrawn and was no longer the explicit position of the Department of Justice.

The memo was specifically talking about international anti-torture conventions that the United States had signed on to, and the laws Congress had passed to enforce them. Arlen Specter came the closest to getting Gonzales to back down by using the bluntest of quotes on this from the memo. Gonzales did back down, and with uncharacteristic bluntness:

SEN. SPECTER: Just one question about the so-called Bybee memorandum, and it is, do you agree with the statement in the memo, quote, “The Congress may no more regulate the president’s ability to detain and interrogate enemy combatants than it may regulate his ability to direct troop movements on the battlefield,” close quote?

MR. GONZALES: I reject that statement, Senator.