Politics & Policy

It Can’T Be Said in Simple Words

The charge that the Bush administration is something of a closed society keeps coming up, for instance in the matter of Vice President Cheney and Lewis Libby. Why doesn’t Mr. Cheney simply release his version of what went on in the matter of disclosing the employment of Mrs. Wilson? The question is concededly complicated by Cheney’s anxiety not to say anything that might get in the way of the defense story when it is finally articulated. But whatever the reservations, we have here an Administration Silence that annoys, vexes, and even outrages.

The reaction to this Silence came to a boil a fortnight ago at a White House briefing at which Scott McClellan, the press chief, took on the matter of torture.

It’s relevant here, by way of perspective, to remind ourselves that the Geneva Protocols to which the United States subscribed back in 1949 were something of a casualty of September 11. The president said then that terrorists do not fall neatly into the category of enemy combatants, for whom the Geneva codes were written. That dictum was widely accepted as mere common sense–the terrorist caught placing a bomb in a New York skyscraper is different from the soldier across the line with a rifle or a tank.

But it is not specified in language available to the public just what the singularities are. President Bush has said that the Geneva principles continue to govern U.S. behavior in dealing with detainees. Senator Rockefeller has asked for a congressional investigation, and Senator McCain wants a new law that would specifically and unequivocally govern the conduct of our military . . . Our military? Does that include the CIA?

Such questions are being asked, and press chief McClellan attempted to preempt a parsing of them by saying, “I think the president’s made our position very clear. We do not condone torture, nor would he ever authorize the use of torture. We have an obligation to abide by our laws and our treaty obligations, and that’s what we do. That is our policy.”

A questioner wanted to know how the president would react to the proposed legislation. “Does the administration want the CIA exempted from that law?”

McClellan: “We’ve stated our views on that amendment. The House passed a different version of the Department of Defense spending legislation. The Senate included some language on that. We’ll be working with congressional leaders as they move forward to pass that legislation. “

Questioner: “I don’t get it. Is that a yes or a no?”

McC: “I’m not going to get into discussions that we’re having with congressional leaders about how to move forward on that legislation.”

Q: “You’ve already said the president is going to veto anything that would exempt us from torture. You have–this White House demeans–”

McC: “That’s not correct.”

Q: “You demean all Americans when you support torture. And your answer is so fuzzy. First–”

McC: “Our answer is very clear. And that’s flat-out wrong, what you’re suggesting, because this president has made it very clear what our policy is.”

And on we go. Soon the questioner was asking for hemidemisemiquavers of distinction. Okay, the president doesn’t condone torture. “But does he allow it?”

The issues are complicated by contextual questions. The Geneva paradigm prohibits treatment that is cruel, humiliating, or degrading. A member of the Taliban who has been for two years at Guantanamo can persuasively plead that he has been degraded, humiliated, and subjected to cruelty. The kind of objectivity possible in congressional hearing rooms and salons of justice in Geneva is not reached in the murk of terrorist warfare. Rules governing conduct in espionage and counter-terrorist activity are not readily enunciated. No one has the right to preach to Senator McCain on the subject, inasmuch as he is one of the providential survivors of torture in its most elaborated forms. What the administration appears to be resisting is endorsement of legislation that suffers from inbuilt rigidities that preclude the realities. Does the CIA require, for the success of its operations, a greater license than the military? Have we thought through the implications of anti-terrorist activity? If not, is Guantanamo a fetid creature of that confusion?

The administration has access to very bright and thoughtful civil servants, but they cannot shield the administration from the consequences of failing to think through the dilemmas they are in.

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