Above the rule of law
Above the rule of law
Britain should avoid any compromise with the dirty war that the Bush administration is waging against terrorism
Friday August 5, 2005
Almost every significant aspect of the investigation to bring the London terrorists to justice is the opposite of Bush's "war on terrorism". From the leading role of Scotland Yard to the close cooperation with police, the British effort is at odds with the US operation directed by the Pentagon.
Just months before the London bombings, upon visiting the Guantánamo prison, British counter-terrorism officials were startled that they did not meet with legal authorities, but only military personnel; they were also disturbed to learn that the information they gathered from the CIA was unknown to the FBI counter-terrorism team and that the British were the only channel between them. The British discovered that the New York City Police Department's counter-terrorism unit was more synchronised with its methods and aims than the US government was.
The Italian counter-terrorism operation that was essential in the capture of one of the alleged terrorists fleeing London is itself in open conflict with Bush's "war". Last month, an Italian prosecutor filed indictments against 13 CIA operatives who allegedly betrayed their Italian intelligence colleagues in surveillance of an Egyptian Muslim cleric, using their information but not telling them about the "rendering" (that is, kidnapping) of the suspect to Egypt rather than permitting his arrest in Italy. Now the CIA agents are fugitives from Italian justice.
International counter-terrorism is running foul of Bush's imperatives for what has become a "dirty war". Though Bush's "war on terrorism" is a phrase his administration declared obsolete last month (only to have Bush reimpose the slogan), the dirty war remains very much in place. Since September 11, Bush proposed a sharp dichotomy between "war" and "law enforcement". In his 2004 State of the Union address, he ridiculed those who view counter-terrorism as other than his conception of war: "I know that some people question if America is really in a war at all. They view terrorism more as a crime, a problem to be solved mainly with law enforcement and indictments ... The terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States, and war is what they got."
During the presidential campaign, vice-president Dick Cheney contemptuously criticised the application of law enforcement as effeminate "sensitivity". In June of this year, Bush's deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove, attacked the very idea of "indictments" as a symptom of liberal weakness.
Against the strongest possible internal opposition - from senior US military figures, the military's corps of lawyers, the then secretary of state Colin Powell, and the FBI - Bush disdained the Geneva conventions and avoided legalities, especially trials, to pursue a torture policy. He created a far-flung system of prisons run by an unaccountable military chain of command apart from traditional counter-intelligence. It has been operated clandestinely, removed from the oversight of Congress. And Bush has fought in the courts against the intrusions of due process to retain supreme presidential prerogative.
Yet Bush is increasingly embattled in defence of his dirty war. The Pentagon has appealed against a federal judge's ruling to make public 87 photographs and four videos from Abu Ghraib depicting "rape and murder", according to a senator who has seen them. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has quashed the recommendation of military investigators looking into FBI reports of torture at Guantánamo that its commander, Maj Gen Geoffrey Miller, be reprimanded for dereliction of duty.
Last month, three top military attorneys from the judge advocate generals for the army, air force and marines testified before the Senate that they had objected from the start to the new abusive techniques of interrogation of prisoners. One memo revealed by Maj Gen Jack Rives, deputy judge advocate general of the air force, said: "Several of the more extreme interrogation techniques, on their face, amount to violations of domestic criminal law."
In response, three Republican senators have proposed legislation that would in effect abolish Bush's dirty war. Their bill would prohibit "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" of detainees, hiding prisoners from the Red Cross, and from using methods not authorised by the army field manual. One of these senators, John McCain, himself a prisoner of war in Vietnam, released a letter signed by more than a dozen retired senior military generals and admirals as well as prisoners of war. It said: "The abuse of prisoners hurts America's cause in the war on terror, endangers US service members who might be captured by the enemy, and is anathema to the values Americans have held dear for generations."
Cheney interceded to attempt to force the senators to withdraw, claiming they are hurting the "war on terrorism", but they have refused. McCain declared that the debate was not about the terrorists, saying: "It's not about who they are. It's about who we are."
But the dirty war that damages the difficult work of counter-terrorism continues unabated. It goes on for reasons beyond domestic political consumption. At its heart lies the drive for concentrated executive power above the rule of law.
Predictably, Bush's dirty war is having a counter-productive effect, just as dirty wars did in Vietnam, Algeria and Argentina. For every militant abused or killed, a community of like-minded militants is inspired. Hatred, resentment and vengeance are the natural outcomes. There has never been a victory through a dirty war over these forces. To the extent that Britain responds with the assertion of the rule of law it serves as a notable counter-example to Bush's dirty war.
· Sidney Blumenthal, a former senior adviser to President Clinton, is author of The Clinton Wars