WASHINGTON -- The American people have heard President Bush and his spokespeople say many times that the U.S. government does not engage in torture.
Whether Bush was believed or not is another story -- especially in light of the photographic evidence of the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib. It's understood that many of the photos are too sadistically graphic to be made public.
Still, the official U.S. denials of torture continued until earlier this month when Bush acknowledged in an interview with ABC-TV that he knew about and approved "enhanced interrogation" of detainees, including "waterboarding" or simulated drowning.
"As a matter of fact," Bush added, "I told the country we did that. And I told them it was legal. We had legal opinions that enabled us to do it."
The president added, "I didn't have any problems at all trying to find out what Khalid Sheik Mohammed knew."
"He was the person who ordered the suicide attack -- I mean, the 9/11 attacks," Bush said. "And back then, there was all kind of concern about people saying, 'Well, the administration is not connecting the dots.' You might remember those -- that period." Bush said.
Bush also said in the interview that he had been aware of several meetings his national security advisers held to discuss "enhanced interrogation" methods.
Surely he is aware of the U.S. commitment to international treaties barring "cruel and inhumane" treatment of prisoners.
What is startling is that he feels no remorse about the cruel image he has created for us -- and the damage done to our credibility and probity.
In referring to the legality of torture, Bush apparently was thinking of a 2002-2003 memo by John Yoo, a Justice Department official who argued military interrogators could subject detainees to harsh treatment as long as it didn't cause "death, organ failure or permanent damage." The memo was rescinded.
Bush, who has insisted "we do not torture," also recently vetoed legislation that explicitly banned torture. Sen. John McCain, whose whole political persona has been defined by the fact that he had been tortured while a prisoner of war during the Vietnam era, supported Bush's veto.
For both Bush and McCain, I recall the words of Joseph Welch, the special counselor for the Army during the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings when Welch asked Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis.: "Sir, have you no sense of decency?"
We expected the usual cast of characters including Vice President Dick Cheney to be in on the sinister torture-planning sessions.
But it came as a shock that Gen. Colin Powell, then secretary of state, sat in on the meetings and went along with the planning. Powell had been on record warning against U.S. torture policies on the basis that if we mistreat our prisoners, foreign countries will feel no qualms about abusing American captives in wartime.
Once revered for his integrity, Powell has lost his halo.
Now we have this week's testimony of Air Force Col. Morris Davis, a former chief prosecutor, who took the witness stand at Guantanamo Bay on behalf of a prisoner. Davis told how top Pentagon officials had pressured him on sensitive prosecutorial decisions for political reasons. He said he was told that the charges against well-known detainees "could have real strategic value" and that there could be no acquittals.
Davis also testified Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann reversed a decision he made and insisted prosecutors proceed with evidence they obtained through waterboarding and other methods of torture.
Davis also testified he was told to speed up the cases to give the system legitimacy before a new president takes over in January.
Is Congress so cowed that it accepts the statements of a president who has little regard for the truth?
Is there no lawmaker who is appalled about the tarnishing of our image in world opinion? And where are the voices of the other presidential candidates who will inherit the Bush legacy of torture? Why the silence?
I count on the American people to refuse to be shamed any more.
"Sooner or later all freedom loving Americans will realize that the only
way to stop those who would bleed our nation dry, dismantle our
constitution, and dissolve our national sovereignty is to say I will not
work for you, buy from you, fight for you, or die for you, until the
criminals are gone from the halls of our government."
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Helen Thomas is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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