Lost in Translation

09.2.2004 | David L. Steinhardt | National Affairs | 1 Comment
“Why aren’t we talking about the issues?”

The cliché invites its own response: so talk!

I downloaded a few newly declassified documents relating to the Abu Ghraib torture scandal some months ago, but only this week got around to reading them. Seems like the rest of the Fourth Estate let them slide as well. Let’s take a look at two directly related to each other: a draft memo from Alberto Gonzales, counsel to the president, dated January 25, 2002, that purports to represent Colin Powell’s position opposing the US’s abandoning of the Geneva Conventions, and Powell’s own memo, “Draft Decision Memorandum for the President on the Applicability of the Geneva Convention to the Conflict in Afghanistan,” that makes his own case in far stronger terms. (Both memos, and much more besides, are available here, though the Gonzales memo is misidentified as being from the State Department).

This revelation of how our dysfunctional presidential administration communicates within itself could have been the subject of front-page stories. So many questions remain unanswered: did Sec. Powell’s corrective memo die on Gonzales’s desk? The subsequent presidential order abandoning Geneva protocols (GPW) and opening the door on ever changing torture methods, dependent on the administration’s frustration level over the quality of their interrogations, suggests it did not.

Gonzales’s memo to the president claims to outline “the ramifications of your decision and the Secretary’s request for reconsideration.” In fact, it’s an exercise in trying to befuddle the president into ignoring Powell’s concerns.   

Gonzales sets out the “negative” arguments in a mere 22 lines before declaring them “unpersuasive.” Had his versions of the negative arguments made any sense, his refutations might not have come so blithely.

His first straw man is to offer that “since the Geneva Conventions were concluded in 1949, the United States has never denied their applicability to either U.S. or opposing forces engaged in armed conflict,” with a supporting quotation from the president’s father, “41.” Gonzales then knocks down this argument by calling it “incorrect,” noting that the first President Bush declared them inapplicable after his 1989 invasion of Panama, although he adhered to them anyway.

Sec. Powell notes that to abandon the Geneva Conventions is to “reverse over a century of U.S. policy and practice.” (The first Geneva Convention dates to 1864.)

Gonzales, in his very next sentence, claims terrorism was “not contemplated in 1949 when the GPW was framed,” which would have come as quite a surprise to the British, who had just been squeezed out of Palestine by the successful terror campaign of future Israelis.

Powell notes that GPW is “quite flexible” and allows the U.S. to do everything it needs to do.

Gonzales’s next response is to the notion that GPW protects American soldiers as well. His kiss-ass counter argument for the president is that “your policy of providing humane treatment to enemy detainees gives us the credibility to insist on like treatment of our soldiers.”

That would be, uh, piles of naked GIs next to a thumbs-up sign?

Powell’s arguments address criminal, war crimes, and other prosecutions of GIs.

Gonzales recognizes that the certainty of a blizzard of international criticism for denying GPW is “undoubtedly true,” then gives our president the laziest possible way to look at it, adding that his previous decision not to treat detainees as POWs leaves him open to criticism anyway.


Gonzales concludes with a huge whatever by telling the president that since the “principles” of GPW are still to be kept in mind, that there really isn’t anything to worry about.

Powell gives eleven detailed reasons why the new policy would spell disaster. He was right, but no one was really listening.

My suggestion to the administration would be to line up the vermin along a wall and machine gun the ungreatful iraqi bastards.
10.25.2004 | al

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