‘Would you not concede that your decision and the decision of the president to call into question the definition of torture, the need to comply with the Geneva Conventions, at least opened up a permissive environment of conduct?’ You would think that the man answering the question would be standing trial at the Hague, but he’s being asked that question by the Senate Judiciary Committee, just one step away from being the next attorney general of the United States. Alberto R. Gonzales, the legal advisor to President Bush on the issue of interrogating prisoners, has been at the center of the controversy regarding prisoner treatment in the war on terror.
With the forced release of several memos from the Bush administration, it is clearer than ever that authorization came from the highest levels of government to use excessive force to extract information from those captured. A concerted effort was made on the part of the White House legal counsel, Alberto Gonzalez, to protect the upper echelons of government from being prosecuted under international law. By labeling prisoners taken as illegal combatants and by allowing countries with lax interrogation laws to handle them, the military managed to circumvent existing laws and regulations designed to prevent the illegal treatment of prisoners.
In a memo to President Bush dated to Jan. 25, 2002, Gonzales states, ‘The nature of the new war places a high premium on other factors, such as the ability to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists. … In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitation on questioning of enemy prisoners.’
While blame for the incidents in the Abu Ghraib prison thus far has been laid squarely on the shoulders of soldiers on the lowest rungs in the military, the reality of the situation is that culpability can be traced all the way up to the highest levels of the government. The memo by Gonzales, advises the president to effectively opt out of the Geneva Conventions to avoid the War Crimes Act of 1996, which makes war crimes defined under the Geneva Conventions illegal under penalty of imprisonment and, in cases where the result is death, the death penalty may also be imposed.
What Bush seems to have failed to understand is that while the torture of prisoners may yield information useful in protecting Americans, it simultaneously endangers Americans abroad, especially military personnel. By choosing not to apply the Geneva Conventions, soldiers stationed in Iraq are presently exempt from its protections. Other countries in future engagements may choose to follow the United States’ example of ignoring international law as well, which could result in the abuse of American civilians and soldiers worldwide. The full consequences of President Bush’s illegal actions under the guidance of Gonzalez will be left for the historians to decide. Whether their undue vigilance succeeded in saving the United States from disaster or instead set up a future catastrophe that will eventually leave the country in ruins is for future generations to debate.
For now, what is clear is that the American people have put the man who authorized war crimes back into the Oval Office, and now the Senate stands to confirm the man who defended its legality to be the new attorney general of the United States. With war-mongering Republicans monopolizing the highest levels of government, there is no one to keep the government in check.
James Huang is a third-year information and computer sciences major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.