The scandal of torture and abuse symbolized by Abu Ghraib took a turn for the better at the end of last year with news of a Justice Department draft memorandum reaffirming the responsibilities of the United States under the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture. After a succession of revelations of further atrocities, particularly in Guantánamo, and of court rulings critical of the lack of legal protections afforded terrorist suspects, some in the Bush administration have seen the wisdom of acknowledging its legal obligations toward detainees in the war on terror and toward prisoners of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. military has long recognized that if we throw out the Geneva Conventions, it will be difficult to criticize our enemies when they ignore these conventions in dealing with our own soldiers.
Acting Assistant Attorney General Daniel Levin ought to be commended for leading the United States back to the moral high ground abandoned by Mr. Bush’s former attorney general, John Ashcroft, and the White House legal counsel, Alberto R. Gonzales, when they ruled that in the war on terror the United States is not bound by the Geneva Conventions. The administration needs to be watched closely to see whether Mr. Levin’s memorandum becomes lasting government policy. Many analysts believe that the Levin memo, released just before Mr. Gonzales’ confirmation hearing, was a ploy to clear the way for the Senate to approve his appointment as the nation’s next attorney general.
This memo should not be allowed to paper over an unprecedented national disgrace. From holding detainees incommunicado to torturing them for the purpose of gaining intelligence, the administration has taken a series of initiatives that violate fundamental freedoms, basic rights and essential human decencies. As the Abu Ghraib scandal demonstrated, it is a short step from loosening up detainees for interrogation to depraved treatment by poorly supervised troops. The core scandal, however, continues to be the authorization of such methods by high-level administration officials, chief among them Mr. Gonzales.
After a number of flawed investigations, new abuses and authorizations for them continue to be disclosed. The C.I.A. still refuses to make any disclosures about treatment of its captives and its chain of secret prisons outside the United States. F.B.I. interrogators have complained to their superiors about illicit measures employed by the military on detainees in Guantánamo; and there is only the vaguest public knowledge of renditions of captives to other countries, where they are expected to be interrogated more vigorously than even the administration’s permissive standards would have allowed.
The most obvious way to insure that the illegal and immoral practices perpetrated in the name of U.S. security are ended would have been for the Senate to hold extensive hearings on the topic prior to any vote on Mr. Gonzalez’ confirmation as attorney general. He was a principal architect of the policies that attempted, in the name of freedom from terror, to exempt U.S. military and security personnel from responsibility to uphold fundamental human rights of both Americans and people of other nationalities. Mr. Gonzales also attributed to the president war-time powers so sweeping they are reminiscent of the way the Roman Republic made consuls into dictators in time of national emergency.
The war on terror has opened a wide breach in the ramparts of immunities that protect people from the strong arm of the state. The shock of Sept. 11 was so great that the country turned a blind eye as thousands of immigrants and Arab- and Muslim-Americans were swept up in mass arrests, Afghan fighters were declared detainees without the protections of the Geneva Conventions, and uncounted Iraqis were roused from their sleep to be imprisoned in hellholes like Abu Ghraib. Experts argued that the excessive measures approved by the government would not result in improved intelligence, but the administration plunged ahead. Still, the political elites, including the opposition Democrats, refuse to hold the president’s men accountable. It is left to the courts and nongovernmental organizations like Amnesty International, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch to be defenders of human dignity.
It is ironic that as the administration works to extend democracy to the Middle East, it has swept aside the very protections against government abuse of power that are most essential to our system of democratic government. If we do not hold the president’s appointees accountable, how will we preserve our freedoms for future generations? How will we restore our national honor before the world?