The torture memoranda
January 6, 2005 8:45 PM   Subscribe

Links to the government memoranda on torture and the Geneva Convention can be found here (sign-up required) or else through the "featured link" on While Alberto Gonzales will probably be confirmed as Attorney General, the memoranda were the subject of some stinging testimony by such heavy-hitters as Harold Koh, dean of Yale Law School, at the end of today's confirmation hearing.
posted by klazmataz (20 comments total)
While I haven't read all of the details, let me point out that it's one thing to write a memo saying that under international law it may be legal to take a certain action, and another thing to write a memo saying that it's a good ideally ethically or morally. To the best of my knowledge Gonzales did the former at the request of his superiors. His job was to provide information about the legality of an act, not to make big decisions about whether the act was a good idea or not.

You can argue that by doing so he helped encourage torture, but by the same logic a public defender encourages murder.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 9:01 PM on January 6, 2005

We Are All Torturers Now
posted by muckster at 9:16 PM on January 6, 2005

Well, thedevildancelightly, Koh's argument was that the Jan. 22, 2002 Bybee memorandum on torture was so flawed legally (and morally) that Gonzales, who requested the memo, should have either rejected it right away or else should have sought a second opinion, for instance from the State Department lawyers. That he did not do so arguably shows that Gonzales should not be the country's chief law enforcer.
posted by klazmataz at 9:17 PM on January 6, 2005

klazmataz - not disagreeing with your point necesarily, but a lot of the non-MeFi discussion has had a tone of "he supports torture!" to it, which I think is incorrect (NYTimes, sorry).

The parts of memos that I've read (again, admittedly not all) are strictly dealing with the legality of the act. His job was to provide that information, and somebody higher-up made the moral/ethical/values decision.

It all depends on how you feel about Tom Lehrer:
"Once they go up, who cares where they come down / That's not my department, says Warner von Braun"
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 9:40 PM on January 6, 2005

I expect the next group of American soldiers--or civilians--to be captured by enemy forces will suffer for the Bush administrations' decisions about torture. Whether this will wake enough of the idiot 51% up to what kind of people they've handed the reins of their country, that remains to be seen. Those enemy forces will say, and they will be right to say, that their treatment of US personnel is no worse than the US's treatment of its own prisoners.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 9:51 PM on January 6, 2005

aeschenkarnos - there is not a long and proud history of US troops being treated well. Remember John McCain's days in the Hanoi Hilton?(warning: sound) Korea was probably worse. In WWII the Japanese were notorious for slaughtering captives.

The only recent enemy we've fought that treated POWs in a remotely humane fashion was probably Germany in WWII (a bit ironic given their treatment of other groups).

Poor treatment of multi-national captured soldiers (and non-combatants) in Iraq/Afghanistan also predates any of the Gitmo/Abu Gharib information coming to light. Remember the WSJ reporter, the truck driver, the semi-monthly videos of captives being killed by bullets to the back of the head? I don't think that our enemy really cares one whit about the Geneva Convention and while US acts might add rhetorical fire, they never cared in the first place.

If you ever get a chance read about "total war" theory. Basically it says that if a country has nothing to lose then they're not going to let a little Geneva Convention get in their way. That strikes me as a much larger determinant than past US mistakes.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 10:01 PM on January 6, 2005

To clarify - I think torture is generally bad. It's not the right thing to do as a free society or as a humane culture. That's enough, we don't need to find other reasons to condemn it.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 10:02 PM on January 6, 2005

You are right, thedevildancedlightly, in that the enemy might have acted inhumanely anyway. But until recently this would have been unilateral, and a response of righteous indignation would be uncynically accepted by the world. This is no longer the case: the US objecting to torture of captured US personnel is now merely a self-interested objection, not a moral objection, and is hypocritical besides. Worse, the Bush administration's actions have given any enemy a positive reason to act inhumanely, in order to make the clear point that the Bush administration have handed them to make: to lower the US to their level, in the eyes of the world.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 10:31 PM on January 6, 2005

aeschenkarnos - I have my (moral/ethical) reasons to be upset at any torture that has taken place. I definitely respect yours as well. I'm not 100% sure that it'll make a difference in practice, but agree in spirit. But, I don't think this thread is really about torture in itself. I'm sure we could get a few people to come and defend torture, but I think the majority of MeFites would come out pretty strongly in opposition.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 10:47 PM on January 6, 2005

There isn't really a difference, only that in the latter case you're being weaselly enough to be able to talk your way out of your responsibility and bad judgment later.

And any such discussion is rendered moot by the fact that the US has been torturing people.
posted by Space Coyote at 11:26 PM on January 6, 2005

The argument that the US is entitled to torture suspects because of the brutal nature of the enemy is a bogus one which will only create a vicious circle of violence.

If the President is so enthusiastic about "faith-based" initiatives, why doesn't he take a leaf out of Jesus' book and "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" and stick to globally-accepted legal practices?

But then I realised that the neo-cons are Old Testament mixed with the best bits from Revelation, which more or less allows you to do what you want and justify it with moral language.

Getting away from the point here, but I believe that the administration has managed to convince themselves that they are morally justified to torture prisoners, but are not prepared to face the outcomes of their actions.
posted by scaryduck at 1:16 AM on January 7, 2005

scaryduck - To play the devil's advocate for a moment (my beliefs are above - in short, torture=bad), what if the enemy would believe that we tortured prisoners no matter what we actually did? I mean, the middle east isn't exactly known for a fair and balanced press, and especially not those already radicalized groups who probably view the world through a very particular filter. If our actions would have no impact on what they thought, then would your assertion about "face the outcomes of their actions" still hold?

I'm also not sure that "globally accepted legal practices" is a great standard - a lot of people have been wrong before (WWII: "20 million Germans can't be wrong!"). And because of the influence of the large Arab voting bloc the UN doesn't always have a ton of respect for women's rights. Just saying...
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 2:02 AM on January 7, 2005

To play the devil's advocate for a moment (my beliefs are above - in short, torture=bad), what if the enemy would believe that we tortured prisoners no matter what we actually did?

That doesn't matter except as a tactical point, and tactics do not justify torture. The necessity of abiding by the Geneva Convetions is not tactical.
posted by krinklyfig at 2:54 AM on January 7, 2005

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham's opening statement at the nomination hearing of Alberto Gonzales.

Via Volokh.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:49 AM on January 7, 2005

This whole thing is what the US military calls Law of Armed Conflict, or LOAC. Like the Geneva Convention, it's a social contract that an "in-group" of nations signed, and now we judge other groups (i.e. Taliban) by their failure to abide by this law, when they had no input to the creation of the social contract it represents in the first place. That invalidates it as a legitimate international law...
posted by DAJ at 6:17 AM on January 7, 2005

devil: you are a nincompoop. I think it was John Stewart who had the best line, with regards to the fact that America sponsors torture--"So at least we're not quite as bad as Al Qaida."
posted by bardic at 9:06 AM on January 7, 2005

They change the laws to suit their cause.
posted by LowDog at 10:20 AM on January 7, 2005

bardic - I don't think you're reading this thread anymore, but my query was written CLEARLY for the sake of argument. That means I don't agree with it, but am using it as a rhetorical device... Ie, I don't like torture, don't support its use, and would reccomend against it. However, I was curious to see how somebody else's views would change given a hypothetical change of facts.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 10:34 AM on January 7, 2005

Alberto Gonzales versus a Baked Potato (fafblog)
Alberto Gonzales: Doesn't offer own legal opinions to the president, can't remember previous legal opinions for the senate, can't explain current legal opinions to anybody.
Baked potato: Doesn't offer own legal opinions to the president, can't remember previous legal opinions for the senate, can't explain current legal opinions to anybody, and is covered with hot melted butter and sour cream!
Advantage: POTATO

posted by amberglow at 5:04 PM on January 15, 2005

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