There was no mushroom cloud, but Rice is radioactive nonetheless. No matter how much she and the embedded reporters traveling with her tried to spin her words, they are falling on deaf ears in Europe. Even here at home, the administration is encountering unusual skepticism in the heretofore-domesticated media. The normally sleepy editorial side of the Washington Post, for example, found it possible to lead its first editorial yesterday by reminding readers that Rice broke no new ground in claiming Wednesday that US personnel - "wherever they are" - are prohibited from using cruel or inhuman interrogation techniques. This is hardly a profile in courage for the Post: The president's spokesman, Scott McClellan, had already told reporters that Rice was merely expressing existing policy.
Trouble on the Home Front
With attention riveted on the cause célèbre occasioned by revelations concerning CIA-run prisons abroad, kidnapping, and "extraordinary renditions" of captives to torture-prone foreign countries - and the predictably neuralgic reaction among our allies - it is easy to miss the likely political fallout here at home.
Never in the sixty years since World War II has an American secretary of state been received with such hostility by our erstwhile friends in Europe. In one sense, it can be seen as poetic justice that Rice, who as national security adviser to the president never heard a Cheney suggestion she didn't like, is taking the heat, while the vice president hides behind her skirts. Poetic justice for Cheney himself, though, may be just around the corner.
It is no secret that Cheney bears primary responsibility for making our country a pariah among nations by punching a gaping hole in the (until now) absolute ban on torture under international and US law. Under international treaties, including treaties ratified by the US Senate and thus the supreme law of the land, civilized societies have long since prohibited practices widely recognized as torture. No matter. At the instigation of the Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal, the inherent human right to physical integrity and personal dignity has become an early casualty of the US "war on terror."
Just five days after 9/11, the vice president told Tim Russert on NBC's Meet the Press:
"We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side ... a lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies ... it's going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective."
At that same time President George W. Bush reportedly issued instructions to the CIA to take a no-holds-barred approach when interrogating suspected terrorists and, according to counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke, used colorful language to impress his attitude upon Clarke and Rumsfeld: "I don't care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass." The head of the Counter-terrorism Center at the CIA conveyed the atmosphere quite well when he testified to Congress that after 9/11 "the gloves were off."
This was the message conveyed to CIA director George Tenet, who dutifully marched off to find interrogators to be set loose on "suspected terrorists" likely to be captured in Afghanistan - and then Iraq. For it was clear from the start that Iraq, too, was in the gun sights of Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the president himself.
"Dark-side" operations, using "any means at our disposal" - like, say, "enhanced interrogation techniques" - by law require a "finding" signed by the president. Before signing, Bush would have sought the advice of his White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales - the more so, since this particular finding raised serious questions with regard not only to international law but also to US criminal statutes, and particularly the War Crimes Act of 1996 (18 U.S.C. 2441).
Enter the (in)famous memorandum of January 25, 2002, from Gonzales to the president, in which some provisions of the Geneva Conventions on prisoners of war were described as "quaint" and "obsolete." Referring to the US War Crimes Act, the author of that memorandum argued that there was a "reasonable basis in law" that Bush could escape future criminal prosecution for violating that law.
Powell Protests ... Not Too Much
Then-Secretary of State (and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) Colin Powell protested, and his warning, which was inserted into the January 25 memorandum to the president, speaks volumes: