After one spends 45 years in Washington, high farce does not normally throw one off balance. But I found the events of Thursday to be an acid test of my equilibrium.

I missed the National Prayer Breakfast—for the 45th time in a row. But, as I drove to work I listened with rapt attention as President George W. Bush gave his insights on prayer:

“When we lift our hearts to God, we’re all equal in his sight. We’re all equally precious. ... In prayer we grow in mercy and compassion. ... When we answer God’s call to love a neighbor as ourselves, we enter into a deeper friendship with our fellow man — and a deeper relationship with our eternal Father.”

Vice President Dick Cheney skipped Thursday’s prayer breakfast in order to put the final touches on the speech he gave later that morning to the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Perhaps he felt he needed some extra time to devise careful words to extol “the interrogation program run by the CIA ... a tougher program for tougher customers, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11,” without conceding that the program has involved torture.

But there was a touch of defensiveness in Cheney’s remarks, as he saw fit repeatedly to reassure his audience that America is a “decent” country.

After all, on Tuesday, CIA Director Michael Hayden had confirmed publicly that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and two other “high-value” detainees had been waterboarded in 2002-2003, though Hayden added that the technique had since been discontinued.

An extreme form of interrogation going back at least as far as the Spanish Inquisition, waterboarding has been condemned as torture by just about everyone – except the legal experts of the Bush administration.

On Wednesday, however, President Bush’s spokesman Tony Fratto revealed that the White House reserves the right to approve waterboarding again, “depending upon circumstances.”

Fratto matter-of-factly described the process still followed by the Bush administration to approve torture—er, I mean “enhanced interrogation techniques” like waterboarding:

“The process includes the director of the Central Intelligence Agency bringing the proposal to the attorney general, where the review would be conducted to determine if the plan would be legal and effective. At that point, the proposal would go to the president. The president would listen to the determination of his advisers and make a decision.”

Dissing Congress

Cheney’s task of convincing the nation about its decency was made no easier when Attorney General Michael Mukasey stonewalled questions from the hapless John Conyers, titular chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Conyers tried, and failed, to get straight answers from Mukasey on torture.

Conyers referred to Hayden’s admission about waterboarding and branded the practice “odious.” But Mukasey seemed to take perverse delight in “dissing” Conyers, as the expression goes in inner-city Washington. Sadly, the tired chairman took the disrespect stoically.

Chairman Conyers did summon the courage to ask Attorney General Mukasey directly, “Are you ready to start a criminal investigation into whether this confirmed use of waterboarding by U.S. agents was illegal?”

“No, I am not,” Mukasey answered.

Mukasey claimed that “waterboarding was found to be permissible under the law as it existed” in the years immediately after 9/11; thus, the Justice Department couldn’t investigate someone for doing something the department had declared legal.

“That would mean that the same department that authorized the program would now consider prosecuting somebody who followed that advice,” Mukasey said.

Oddly, however, Mukasey is on record saying waterboarding would be torture if applied to him. And Michael McConnell, Director of National Intelligence, was even more explicit in taking the same line in an interview with Lawrence Wright of the New Yorker magazine. McConnell told Wright that, for him:

“Waterboarding would be excruciating. If I had water draining into my nose, oh God, I just can’t imagine how painful! Whether it’s torture by anybody else’s definition, for me it would be torture.”

Okay, it would be torture if done to you, Mike; how about if done to others?

Sadly, McConnell, too, missed the prayer breakfast and the president’s moving reminder that we are called “to love a neighbor as ourselves.” Are detainees not covered?

Cat Out of Bag

When torture first came up during his interview with the New Yorker, McConnell was more circumspect, repeating the obligatory bromide “We don’t torture,” as former CIA Director George Tenet did in five consecutive sentences while hawking his memoir on 60 Minutes on April 29, 2007.

As McConnell grew more relaxed, however, he let slip the rationale for Mukasey’s effrontery and the administration’s refusal to admit that waterboarding is torture. For anyone paying attention, that rationale has long been a no-brainer. But here is McConnell inadvertently articulating it:

“If it is ever determined to be torture, there will be a huge penalty to be paid for anyone engaging in it.”

Well, Mike, you should get yourself a briefing on that. Even the Bush-administration-friendly editorial page of the Washington Post on Friday saw fit to declare torture “illegal in all instances,” adding that “waterboarding is, and always has been, torture.”

After World War II, Japanese soldiers were hanged for the war crime of waterboarding American soldiers. Indeed, patriots and prophets have made it clear from our earliest days that such abuse has no place in America.

Virginia patriot Patrick Henry insisted passionately that “the rack and the screw,” as he put it, were barbaric practices that had to be left behind in the Old World, or we are "lost and undone."

Attorney General Mukasey, for his part, recently refused to say whether he considers the rack and the screw forms of torture, dismissing the question as a hypothetical.

As for prophets, George Hunzinger of Princeton Theological Seminary has awakened  enough religious folks to form the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, a coalition of 130 religious organizations from left to right on the political spectrum.

Hunzinger puts it succinctly: “To acknowledge that waterboarding is torture is like conceding that the sun rises in the east,” adding:

"All the dissembling in high places that makes these shocking abuses possible must be brought to an end. But they will undoubtedly continue unless those responsible for them are held accountable.... A special counsel is an essential first step.”

Sadly, Hunzinger and his associates have been unable to overcome the pious complacency of the vast majority of institutional churches, synagogues and mosques in this country and their reluctance to stick their necks out.

How It Looks From Outside

Sometimes it takes a truth-telling outsider to throw light on our moral failures.

South African Methodist Bishop Peter Storey, erstwhile chaplain to Nelson Mandela in prison and outspoken opponent of apartheid, has this to say to those clergy who would preach more than platitudes:

“We had obvious evils to engage; you have to unwrap your culture from years of red, white, and blue myth. You have to expose and confront the great disconnect between the kindness, compassion, and caring of most American people and the ruthless way American power is experienced, directly or indirectly, by the poor of the earth. You have to help good people see how they have let their institutions do their sinning for them.

“All around the world there are those who long to see your human goodness translated into a different, more compassionate way of relating with the rest of this bleeding planet.”

Mukasey’s thumbing his nose at Conyers’s committee was simply the most recent display of contempt for Congress on the part of the Bush administration.

The Founders expected our representatives in Congress to be taken seriously by the executive branch, and that congresspersons would  hold senior executives accountable—to the point of impeaching them, when necessary, for high crimes and misdemeanors.

That used to worry those officials and put a brake on more outlandish behavior. No more.

No Worries, George

One reads George Tenet’s memoirs with some nostalgia for the days of a modicum of congressional oversight, and with a strong sense of irony—as he confesses concern that Congress might one day hold him and others accountable for taking liberties with national and international law.

It seems likely that then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales counseled Tenet that his concerns were quaint and obsolete and, alas, Gonzales may have been right, the way things have been going. But Tenet apparently entertained lingering misgivings—perhaps even qualms of conscience.

In the immediate post-9/11 period, Tenet says he told the president that “our only real ally” on the Afghan border was Uzbekistan, “where we had established important intelligence-collection capabilities.”

We now know from UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray that those “collection capabilities” included the most primitive methods of torture, including boiling alleged “terrorists” alive.

Tenet adds that he stressed the importance of being able to detain unilaterally al-Qaeda operatives around the world. His worries shine through the rather telling sentences that follow:

“We were asking for and we would be given as many authorities as CIA ever had. Things could blow up. People, me among them, could end up spending some of the worst days of our lives justifying before congressional overseers our new freedom to act.”
At the Center of the Storm, p. 177-178

Tenet need not have worried. He would be shielded from accountability by a timid Congress as well as by an arrogant White House able to arrogate unprecedented power to itself and to shield those it wished to protect.

Setting the Tone

It was President George W. Bush who set the tone from the outset. After his address to the nation on the evening of 9/11, he assembled his top national security aides in the White House bunker—the easier, perhaps, to foster a bunker mentality.

Among them was counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, who quoted the president in his memoir:

“I want you to understand that we are at war and we will stay at war until this is done. Nothing else matters. Everything is available for the pursuit of this war. Any barriers in your way, they’re gone. Any money you need, you have it. This is our only agenda...

“I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.”                                 Against All Enemies, Free Press, 2004

Clarke, of course, took his book’s title from the oath of office we all swore as military officers and/or senior government officials: “To defend the Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

John Ashcroft, head of the Department of Justice at the time, fell in lockstep with the thrust of the president’s comment dismissing any concern with international law—or, as would quickly be seen, domestic law, as well.

With the enthusiastic assistance of David Addington, attorney for Vice President Dick Cheney, the affable Ashcroft assembled a cabal of Mafia-like lawyers whose imaginative legal opinions on torture, warrantless eavesdropping and other abuses mark them forever as “domestic enemies” of the Constitution.

Now add Mukasey to that distinguished roster.

Torture became the hallmark.

What is not widely known is that Justice Department-approved torture was first applied to an American citizen, John Walker Lindh, who was captured in Afghanistan in late November 2001. The White House and corporate press immediately sensationalized Lindh as “the American Taliban.”

Jesselyn Radack, a conscientious legal adviser in the Justice Department’s Professional Responsibility Advisory Office giving ethics advice to department attorneys, insisted that Lindh be advised of his rights before any interrogation. Instead, he was tortured mercilessly during the first few days of his internment and denied medical care.

Lindh simply had the foolishness and bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, i.e., in a large group of prisoners rounded up by CIA and Army paramilitary forces—too large a group, it turned out.

In a spontaneous uprising, CIA paramilitary officer Johnny “Mike” Spann, who had questioned Lindh just minutes before, was shot dead. Spann’s colleagues were very angry and applied “frontier justice,” totally ignoring the Constitutional cautions of Ms. Radack.

Eventually, the Department of Justice fired Radack for her principled stand. But she had the presence of mind to save e-mails providing chapter and verse of the difficult exchanges in which she had insisted on respect for Lindh’s rights as an American citizen.

Newsweek carried the story briefly, but neither Congress nor anyone else in the media showed much interest.

Radack’s book recounting this experience, The Canary in the Coalmine: Blowing the Whistle in the Case of “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, is available on line at: http://www.patriotictruthteller.net/.

Against this backdrop, together with Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and prisons in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, Patrick Henry’s question remains a challenge for our time: Are we “lost and undone?”

I think not; but we had better get it together soon, for, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., warned, “There is such a thing as too late.”

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC.  He was an Army intelligence officer before joining the CIA where he had a 27-year career as an analyst.  He is now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

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