I have been putting off posting on the recent debate over treatment of and trials for detainees between some Republicans and the Bush administration. Like Mr. Bush, I too had been seeking "clarity" on this issue, and watching the winds shifting back and forth was only dusting up the air, making it harder to see my nation and what it has publicly claimed before the world that it stands for in our post-9/11 world.
Well. Last night came news of the compromise between a recalcitrant President and an equally-recalcitrant trio of Republican senators, and this Washington Post editorial (free subscription required) presents the gist of that compromise:
THE GOOD NEWS about the agreement reached yesterday between the Bush administration and Republican senators on the detention, interrogation and trial of accused terrorists is that Congress will not -- as President Bush had demanded -- pass legislation that formally reinterprets U.S. compliance with the Geneva Conventions. Nor will the Senate explicitly endorse the administration's use of interrogation techniques that most of the world regards as cruel and inhumane, if not as outright torture. Trials of accused terrorists will be fairer than the commission system outlawed in June by the Supreme Court.
The bad news is that Mr. Bush, as he made clear yesterday, intends to continue using the CIA to secretly detain and abuse certain terrorist suspects. He will do so by issuing his own interpretation of the Geneva Conventions in an executive order and by relying on questionable Justice Department opinions that authorize such practices as exposing prisoners to hypothermia and prolonged sleep deprivation. Under the compromise agreed to yesterday, Congress would recognize his authority to take these steps and prevent prisoners from appealing them to U.S. courts. The bill would also immunize CIA personnel from prosecution for all but the most serious abuses and protect those who in the past violated U.S. law against war crimes.
Clarity? Ohhh, yeah. Lawmakers surrender their constitutional power to hold the executive branch accountable to law--except, in effect, laws the executive branch designs for itself--while, as Josh Marshall puts it here, Congress can wash its hands of whatever it is the CIA has been ordered to do to/with its charges. That sediment that Congress sees in the handbasin is all that former murkiness. And now everyone can go and campaign on a platform of being strong in his/her opposition to terror--and thus claiming to support the President in a time of war--and yet not compromising our principled stands on obedience to the rule of law and insistence on conducting ourselves in a way that respects human rights.
Yup. It's getting clearer all the time.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. This is not a done deal, especially in the House, where some Republicans support the original language of the bill that the President had sought. God love 'em, they will NOT allow the Congress to be hypocrites on this matter. But I just don't know. Standing foursquare with the President on this matter . . . too murky to my mind, especially come Q&A time with journalists and potential voters between now and November. And there are always those pesky Democrats who always oppose the President anyway and remaining Republicans claiming to be trouble in spirit about these things, and former members of the administration AND former heads of the Joint Chiefs of Staff AND former and current JAGs. Stop THINKING, already! That way murkiness lies.
There's another option, though. It's equally murky in its way, but it would have the advantage of ending this debate and I can get back to the business of blogging about stuff like what I've named my whiteboard. At his press conference this week, President Bush said that if the CIA didn't have "clarity" regarding what were and were not acceptable practices regarding detainees, he would have to shut down the program. Well, okay then: Shut them down. Subject detainees to military law and procedures which, while subjecting detainees to the murky but already-codified horrors of due process, at least have the advantage of being long-accepted practice and are conducted in accordance with the principles established by the Geneva Convention . . . oh, yeah: that's the problem. I keep forgetting that a six-decades old set of rules that we are signatories of and have held others accountable to (including the captors of one John McCain during Vietnam) now lacks clarity.
Boy, this achieving clarity stuff is complicated, isn't it? I'd just like for my political betters to clear up all this because, as you can see above, I might make the mistake of preferring murkiness, of opting for the if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it school of What To Do. It's selfish, I know, but I'm just growing tired of being a prisoner of my own conscience. Surely I'm not the only one.
Detainees, Geneva Convention, Law, Bush, McCain, Compromise