Torturous Explanations

By Leonard Fein

Published December 16, 2005, issue of December 16, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

There’s a sometime sense that Condoleezza Rice is, well, different from the others. She’s not as malignant as Dick Cheney nor as arrogant as Donald Rumsfeld, not as mendacious as Alberto Gonzales nor as sinister as Karl Rove. Her patron, the cheerleader-in-chief, gives her room to run and she runs hard; she is a respectable and by-and-large respected secretary of state. So she is in a better position than her colleagues to lecture the Russians on the impropriety of imposing stifling controls on nongovernmental organizations.

Her lecture to that effect was duly reported last week. But her pestering of Vladimir Putin had to compete for headlines with her latest tortured effort to explain away America’s involvement with torture. It is well to ask whether a person so caught up, day after day, in allegedly clarifying American policy on torture is in a position to lecture others about the moral and legal standards to which democratic governments are and ought to be held.

It all began December 5, as Rice was about to depart for Europe, when she addressed in considerable detail our need to “adapt” our “traditional systems of criminal or military justice” to meet the conditions of “the new kind of conflict” that the war on terrorism entails. “The United States,” she said, “does not permit, tolerate or condone torture under any circumstances.”

But what of all the recent reports of secret CIA facilities in undisclosed countries where torture is routinely practiced? What of our transfer, euphemistically referred to as “rendition,” of suspected terrorists to countries that are not so scrupulous as we claim to be in adhering to the Convention Against Torture?”

Ah: “The United States does not transport, and has not transported, detainees from one country to another for the purpose of interrogation using torture.”

Noticing — who could not? — the giant loophole allowed by such a statement, reporters clamored for clarification. Rice: “The United States has not transported anyone, and will not transport anyone, to a country when we believe he will be tortured. Where appropriate, the United States seeks assurances that transferred persons will not be tortured.”

Please. When we believe? Where appropriate? Such a tortured formulation, so obviously and so carefully chosen, begs for amplification.

Accordingly, en route to Germany, she amplified: “The president made very clear from the beginning that he doesn’t condone torture, he doesn’t intend for Americans to practice torture, and that we’re going to live up to both U.S. law and to our international obligations.”

Those obligations, she said in plain English, arise from the Convention Against Torture — “as interpreted by our Justice Department.” Sensibly, she also discussed at some length the “difficult choices” we face in gathering intelligence, yet again and again emphasized that “the president would never ask American citizens to behave unlawfully.”

But that was plainly inadequate: Ask? American citizens? Too much wiggle room, by far. And even if the CIA itself is not engaged in torture — that, say, it outsources the actual torture and merely supervises it — is that covered by Rice’s denials? Is that legitimate in a country of laws?

Nor does any of Rice’s convoluted language adequately explain just why, if this nation abides by all the relevant laws, it objects, and strenuously, to Senator John McCain’s proposal, adopted by a vote of 91- 9 in the Senate, that torture — including cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment — is expressly forbidden.

While still in Berlin, Rice was pointedly asked whether she agrees “with Vice President Cheney that the CIA should be exempt from Senator McCain’s proposals.” To that, the secretary replied, “Well, I think it is absolutely healthy that in a democratic society we are debating this.” Notice an evasion, anyone?

This being the same government that in August 2002 issued a legal opinion, since disavowed, that any interrogation methods short of those that might cause pain comparable to “organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death” could be allowed without being considered torture, what “lawful” means hardly can be taken for granted.

And so Rice is caught up in and soiled by the web of intrigue that marks this administration. Of course there is, as she observes, a real dilemma here, described more graphically by Stephen Hadley, who directs the National Security Council: “The president has said that we are going to do whatever we do in accordance with the law. But you see the dilemma. What happens if on September 7, 2001, we had gotten one of the hijackers and, based on information associated with that arrest, believed that within four days there’s going to be a devastating attack on the United States?”

Hadley evidently believes the answer to his question is self-evident: If you need to torture, then torture, the law be damned.

The Israeli Supreme Court, as I understand its ruling of 1999, expressly forbade any form of torture — with the understanding that in the Hadley scenario, where an interrogator genuinely believes there’s a “ticking bomb,” he would do what he felt was required to save lives, and would after the fact plead necessity and most likely either not be indicted or be exonerated by a jury.

Messy, yes — but not quite as tortured as the policy that Rice has yet adequately to explain, let alone persuasively to defend. Accordingly, she faces a rather different dilemma: How be taken seriously, how be regarded as credible, when you willingly make your home where daily deception is the norm and smugness the attitude?

Find us on Facebook!
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • What would Maimonides say about Warby Parker's buy-one, give-one charity model?
  • For 22 years, Seeds of Peace has fostered dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian teens in an idyllic camp. But with Israel at war in Gaza, this summer was different.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.