Tag Archives: Bruce Ackerman

ANewDomain.net Essay: Why America Is So Over

Originally published at ANewDomain.net:

Republicans spent the weekend in a full-court press defending CIA torturers and the Bush administration that authorized them.

Many of the arguments fell apart upon little reflection.

Former VP Dick Cheney, the architect of post-9/11 torture policy for the White House who personally signed off on individual “enhanced interrogation techniques” used on Muslim prisoners kidnapped and held at Guantánamo and other concentration camps, spat:

“Torture is what the Al Qaeda terrorists did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11,” Mr. Cheney said in his latest interview defending the C.I.A. program. “There is no comparison between that and what we did with respect to enhanced interrogation.”

On that second point, he is right. Murder is what the terrorists did on 9/11. On the first, no: it was definitely torture.

Another nonstarter talking point for the far far right – how else to describe people who support torture, which was abolished by most Western nations by the late 1700s? – was the complaint that the Senate intelligence committee’s report on torture imperils America’s relationship with other nations.

“We do a lot of things with friends,” said former CIA chief Michael Hayden.

He wasn’t talking about fantasy football. He continued:

“A lot of these things are edgy, not illegal, but they have a pretty high political risk quotient attached. When you get into a relationship with a partner and you ask them to do something on your behalf or to cooperate with you, you’re giving them a really powerful commitment of your discretion. Now, this report is going to come out and although it is not going to name the countries that were involved with us in this program, there are those people who think they know what countries were involved that will then use the data in this report you and I have already discussed is not accurate, but they will treat it as accurate, treat it as the historical record and cause great problems for countries who are friends of the U.S.”

I love this argument.

Hayden is literally saying that a future CIA or NSA or NKVD or whatever might want to convince some future counterpart intelligence agency in a foreign country to break the law – do something “edgy” – and that in order to preserve that possible future cooperation in lawbreaking, neither the US government nor the CIA itself should ever second-guess itself, much less prosecute wrongdoers. At the risk of violating Godwin’s law, this is kind of like Germany refusing to apologize for the Holocaust because what if they wanted to do something like that again in the future, perhaps with the help of Japan and Italy?

America is done. Certainly America as a nation of laws is done. But not Michael Hayden. He’s anything but done:

Hayden muses: “What CIA officer in the future, after this and after having been indicted and convicted in absentia, is going to raise his hand in the future and say, ‘This is an odd idea, might be a little edgy, but I’ve been thinking…?’”

Oddly, Hayden seems to believe that this is a bad thing. “The final outcome of this report is going to be an American espionage service that is timid and friendless and that really is a danger to the U.S.”

Given the dismal history of the CIA, from its role in overthrowing the democratically elected governments of Iran and countless Latin American countries, to arming and supporting regimes that torture and murder political dissidents, to spying on opponents of the White House here in the United States, to – most recently – kidnap, torture and murder of innocent people – turning the CIA into a “timid” outfit doesn’t seem so terrible.

But let’s get back to that edgy, leaning-in, go-getter Jack Bauer CIA agent.

Whatever happened to personal responsibility?

The Republican Party, after all, is the party of conservatism. Conservatives say that it’s every man for himself, that we’re all responsible for our own actions, and that if we make a mistake we have to be willing to pay the price for it.

That goes double for the man’s men who work on the dark side in covert ops. In the intelligence community, at least as we see it represented on TV and in the movies, torture is the tool of the rogue CIA agent willing to take the risk of breaking the rules. What are the Geneva Conventions compared to the lives of millions of Americans? There are covert operations the US government stands behind and then there are many others that, if they go bad, leave the agent dead or otherwise twisting in the wind, perhaps locked away in some foreign prison.

Those are some cold egg noodles, but for the patriots who keep us safe, it’s a bargain they’re willing to accept.

But not anymore. Just like the banks that are too big to fail, so-called conservatives are upping the moral hazard ante by declaring CIA operatives to patriotic to be prosecuted.

“They were successful. That’s historical fact,” Hayden says, counterfactually. “Do I support them? With regard to waterboarding, I’ve made it very clear that I thank God I didn’t have to make that decision. I had easier circumstances when I was director [from 2006 to 2009].”

Cheney says John Yoo’s “torture memos” —  legal opinions issued by the White House Office of Legal Counsel under Bush –  inoculate CIA agents who committed torture from legal repercussions. “All of the techniques that were authorized by the president were in effect blessed by the Justice Department opinion that we could go forward with those [EITs] without in fact committing torture,” Cheney claims.

But legal memos, no matter how well argued, are simply the opinion of a random lawyer. They don’t carry the force of law, even when they’re issued by a lawyer who works for the White House. What they attempt to do is to reassure the lawyer’s client that their actions are probably in compliance with the law and, in this case, international treaty obligations such as the Convention Against Torture. Lawyers can be and often are wrong. The only way to settle disputes over what is legal and what is the legal is to bring the case before a court of law.

The torture memos, however, were leaked early during the so-called global war on terror. Reaction from the mainstream legal establishment was swift and severe: they were crap. “They not only took extreme positions; they were legally incompetent, failing to consider many of the most obvious counterarguments,” Bruce Ackerman wrote.

In other words, any CIA operative wondering whether he enjoyed legal cover for torture, had only to open a newspaper or conduct a cursory Google search to learn that the answer was no. The law had not changed. As far as the American judiciary was concerned, interpretation of the law hadn’t changed either.

Every CIA torturer knew that he was breaking the law.

            So here you have it: a collision between conservative politics and reality. Officially, conservatives hold people responsible for their actions, especially when they break the law. But when those people are goons beating and killing those they deem to be enemies of the state, they deserve the utmost leniency.

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Iran – Because Two Wars Aren’t Enough

Why Doesn’t Anyone Call Out Romney for Warmongering?

Mitt Romney had a barnburner of a weekend in Israel. The GOP nominee apparent shared his unique combination of economic and anthropological wisdom, attributing the fact that Israel’s GDP and average income is many times higher than those of the Palestinian Occupied Territories to Israelis’ superior “culture.”

As if spewing one of the most overtly racist lines in recent presidential campaign history wasn’t enough, eschewing “containment” (read: “diplomacy”), Romney also endorsed a preemptive Israeli military strike against Iran in order to prevent the latter’s nuclear program—Israel’s own, illegal nuclear weapons stockpile is OK since it’s a U.S. ally—from moving forward.

“We have a solemn duty and a moral imperative to deny Iran’s leaders the means to follow through on their malevolent intentions,” Romney said, stating that “no option should be excluded.”

He didn’t say how he knew the intentions of Iran’s leaders. Clairvoyance? Bush had it too.

Though Mitt slightly walked back his campaign’s sabre rattling, the message was clear. If he is elected, Israel will receive a blank check to begin a war against Iran, one of the most well-equipped military powers in the Middle East—a conflagration in which the United States could easily wind up getting dragged into. (In a subsequent interview he reiterated that “we have all options on the table. Those include military options.”)

Most criticism focused on Romney’s flouting of the traditional proscription against candidates questioning a sitting president’s foreign policy while visiting foreign soil. Though, to be fair, the differences between his and President Obama’s approach to Israel and Iran are tonal and minor.

As usual with the U.S. media, what is remarkable is what is going unsaid. Here we are, with the economy in shambles and the public worried sick about it, the electorate tired of 12 years of war against Afghanistan and nine against Iraq, yet Romney—who could be president six months from now—is out ramping up tensions and increasing the odds of a brand-new, bigger-than-ever military misadventure.

Warmongering has gone mainstream. It’s a given.

In a way, Romney’s willingness to risk war against Iran is merely another example, like the car garage and dressage, of how clueless and out of touch he is. Most Americans oppose war with Iran. For that matter, so do the citizens of the country on whose behalf we’d be killing and dying, Israel. But even Romney’s Democratic opponents give him a pass for Romney’s tough-guy act on Iran.

The reason for the somnolent non-response is obvious: it’s nothing new. Year after year, on one foreign crisis after another, American presidents repeatedly state some variation on the theme that war is always an option, that the military option is always on the table. You’ve heard that line so often that you take it for granted.

But did you know that “keeping the military option on the table” is a serious violation of international law?

The United States is an original signatory of the United Nations Charter, which has the full force of U.S. law since it was ratified by the Senate in 1945. Article 51 allows military force only in self-defense, in response to an “armed attack.” As Yale law and political science professor Bruce Ackerman wrote in The Los Angeles Times in March, international law generally allows preemptive strikes only in the case of “imminent threat.” In 1842 Secretary of State Daniel Webster wrote what remains the standard definition of “imminent,” which is that the threat must be “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means and no moment for deliberation.” The enemy’s troops have massed on your border. They have superior force. What must be done to stop them is evident. There’s no time for diplomacy.

Iran’s nuclear program doesn’t come close to this definition, even from Israel’s standpoint. Bruce Fein, deputy attorney general under Reagan, told Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting’s Extra! Magazine: “It is nothing short of bizarre to claim, as the Obama Administration is doing, that the mere capability to make a bomb is justification for a preemptive attack. That’s a recipe for perpetual war. Almost any country could have the capability to make a bomb. They are torturing the word ‘imminent’ to the point that it has no meaning.”

By endorsing an Israeli attack against Iran at a time when there is no proof that Iran has nuclear weapons, intends to develop them, or use them if it does, Romney is going farther than Obama, who has engaged in back-channel diplomacy.

The Allies’ main brief against the Nazi leaders tried at Nuremberg was not genocide, but that they had violated international law by waging aggressive war. Yet every American president has deployed troops in aggressive military actions.

Aggressive war hasn’t been good for America’s international image, the environment, our economy or the millions who have died, mostly for causes that are now forgotten or regretted. But unless we draw the line against reckless, irresponsible rhetoric like Romney’s, it will go on forever.

(Ted Rall’s new book is “The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt.” His website is tedrall.com. This column originally appeared at NBCNews.com)

(C) 2012 TED RALL, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.