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Control the Dictionary, Control the World

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Message Bernard Weiner
Clinton tried to fudge the truth when he claimed he'd "never had sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky," but he felt he could get away with that language because, in his mind, he defined "sexual relations" as referring to vaginal intercourse.

Bush, with a straight face, tells us that he has never authorized torture, and he thinks he can get away with that lie because the public is mostly unaware that his administration has totally altered the definition of "torture."

According to the infamous 2002 torture memos, which effectively set the policy, torture no longer means what we all understand that term to mean (physical beatings, shoving suspects under water to "drown" them unless they give up secrets, electric shocks to the genitals, unbearable stress, sexual abuse and humiliation, etc.). No, those internationally-understood definitions have become, under Bush&Co., "quaint" remnants from an earlier era.

Under the leadership of Alberto Gonzales and other lawyers -- mainly from the White House, Rumsfeld's office, and Cheney's office -- the Bush Administration went through all sorts of moral gyrations and emerged with new definitions of what constituted torture. Basically, it's not torture if it doesn't kill you or if the excrutiating pain and injuries don't lead to organ failure.

You think I'm exaggerating? Check it out for yourself. The Justice Department's August 1, 2002, legal memo concluded that "the ban on torture is limited to only the most extreme forms of physical and mental harm," which the memo defined as akin to "death or organ failure." [ See also "Bush's Torture Deceit: What 'Is' Is," ( ) and "Gonzales Grilled on Role in Torture at Confirmation Hearing.") ] ( )

So when Bush says the U.S. doesn't torture and he would never authorize torture, in a sense he believes himself to be telling the truth, since he totally transformed the meaning of "torture" to give it a totally different, exceedingly narrow, interpretation. The Administration apparently believes that as a result of interrogations under what Bush calls its "alternative set of procedures," only if the detainees die or are the victims of organ failure could officials rightfully be accused of authorizing torture. (Actually, it's estimated that perhaps as many as 100 detainees have died while in U.S. custody, scores of them directly from torture.)


Furthermore, Bush is asserting that U.S. laws against torture, and Congressional oversight of such activity, should only apply to interrogations that take place on American soil. If the CIA uses the "alternative procedures" in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or in the secret CIA prisons abroad, those don't count. Plus, the Administration has moved to shield those who authorized and carry out "harsh" interrogations from national and international laws against mistreatment of prisoners. Meanwhile, of course, a few lower-level, enlisted "bad apples" have been tried, convicted, and sent to prison.

Likewise, according to the Bush Administration, the "extraordinary rendition" of especially recalcitrant prisoners to friendly countries abroad that are notorious for extreme physical torture does not count as the U.S. cooperating in the administration of torture. The Bush crew play variations on: "They were tortured there? Really? We are shocked, shocked! We don't approve of torture and had no idea it was used on prisoners entrusted to their care." Yeah, sure.

But recently, in making the case to Congress that it should pass the Administration's draconian laws permitting such "alternative procedures," Bush let the cat out of the bag and admitted that several al-Qaida suspects gave up a good deal of valuable information while being interrogated in those secret CIA prisons abroad. But he still denies that his administration carried out "torture" there. Does he think we're stupid?

Do you see how it works? And the ramifications of how it works? In short, Bush&Co. have simply rewritten the dictionary to remove their legal liability for such crimes, and in the process have re-written the rules under which they, and their subordinates, act. When reality doesn't meet their needs, they don't consider making alterations to their policies; they just change the definition of what's "real."


In a sign of how desperate Bush is to maintain complete control of the torture definition -- and thus keep himself and other top U.S. officials out of the war-crimes court in The Hague -- Bush took a rare visit to Congress last week to try to forestall defeat of his torture/military tribunals bill. It was a definition struggle again.

The Geneva Convention on the treatment of captured prisoners is quite clear and specific; no country is permitted to use "cruel" treatment or "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment" on prisoners in its care. Too "vague," says Bush. Instead, he suggests, CIA interrogators need "latitude" (euphemism: "clarity") in interrogating and torturing suspects so that they won't be nervously looking over their shoulders at war-crimes charges.

The Pentagon's senior lawyers think Geneva's definitions are quite clear and openly disagreed with the hardline Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld interpretation of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention. Even Colin Powell bestirred his calcified conscience to point out that by trying to do an end-around Geneva, the U.S. risked losing the moral high ground internationally. Also, as Sen. John McCain (who was tortured as a POW in Hanoi) and others have pointed out, the U.S. would put its captured troops in great jeopardy of "cruel and degrading" treatment -- in other words, torture -- similar to what the CIA was meting out in its secret prisons abroad.

Republican "moderate" senators McCain, Graham, Snowe, Warner and others have been demanding that the U.S. remain consistent with the Geneva protections and also provide some legal safeguards to suspects on trial in military tribunals. But time and time again, these so-called "moderates," under extreme Roveian pressure, have caved and given Bush what he wants. As I write this, it's unclear whether they have the courage to stick to their guns this time. We shall see. In the meantime, get this: Bush threatened to close down the CIA's questioning of terrorist suspects unless Congress approves his bill. Talk about cutting off your nation's nose to spite your personal face! Blackmail as a pre-emptive veto.

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Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at universities in California and Washington, worked for two decades as a writer-editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (more...)
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