WASHINGTON — During confirmation hearings on Alberto Gonzales’ nomination as Attorney General, senators should question him about a recently uncovered memo that George W. Bush “ordered” the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and other military prisons around the world, several human rights groups suggested last month.
The groups, who joined in an ACLU Freedom of Information (FOIA) lawsuit, which won release of the memo and other incriminating documents, are describing it as the “smoking gun” implicating Bush in the torture scandal.
ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero released the memo Dec. 20 in New York. That document, a May 22, 2004* FBI internal e-mail, suggests that Bush issued a secret Executive Order authorizing the use of extreme coercive measures in interrogation, including sleep deprivation, stress positions, attack dogs, and use of hoods to intimidate prisoners. The Geneva Convention Against Torture bans all of these practices.
“These documents raise grave questions about where the blame for widespread detainee abuse ultimately rests,” Romero said. “Top government officials can no longer hide from public scrutiny by pointing the finger at a few low-ranking soldiers.”
The human rights groups’ statement called on the Senate to scrutinize Gonzales, the White House Legal Counsel, on a Jan. 25, 2002, memo he wrote to Bush arguing that the Geneva Conventions outlawing torture did not apply to the war in Afghanistan. Gonzales described the conventions as “quaint” and “obsolete.”
In August 2002, Gonzales, “without consulting military and State Department experts in the laws of torture and war,” according to the Washington Post, approved a memo from the Justice Department claiming that “unlawful enemy combatants” could be detained indefinitely without criminal charges or the right of due process. The memo, the Post said, “gave CIA interrogators the legal blessings they sought.”
Physicians for Human Rights, winner of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, is one of the groups in the ACLU lawsuit. PHR sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee signed by 150 doctors with expertise in the treatment of torture. “There should be no place in the U.S. government for any official who condones the crime of torture,” the letter stated.
Gretchen Borchelt, a PHR spokesperson, joined in the call for probing Bush’s role in the torture scandal. “It would be great to question Gonzales about that memo,” she said. “There are a number of documents the senators have asked for and have not received yet. … We think this is a hugely important issue not just because of the nomination of Gonzales but also because the questions about torture have not been resolved. There has been no accountability.”
Gonzales asserted Bush’s “right to order the torture of detainees, a position that violates U.S. treaty obligations under the Convention Against Torture and other international agreements,” PHR said.
Wilson “Woody” Powell, executive director of St. Louis-based Veterans For Peace, another group in the lawsuit, told the World in a telephone interview that they are now examining the documents, which they recently received.
“Since Gonzales was Bush’s legal adviser at the time, it would make sense to ask him about that memo,” Powell said. “It would be a good question: what was Bush’s role in the torture?”
“If our nation’s highest law enforcement officer is known for abrogating international law in the treatment of detainees, we are just confirming to the world that we don’t care about human rights. We would be confirming a criminal, a scofflaw, to be the nation’s chief prosecutor.”
Powell pointed out that the U.S. is a signatory to the Convention Against Torture as a matter of self-protection. “I fully anticipate someone is going to capture some American soldiers and do unto them what we have done unto others. We have a deep concern for how our soldiers are going to be treated if they are captured” given the record of torture at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and other detention centers, Powell said. Thousands of detainees have been held without trial because the administration lacks evidence to try them or even bring criminal charges.
MoveOn.org, the Internet activist group, has posted a petition on its website demanding that Gonzales sign a “Declaration Against Torture” and “renounce his extreme and dangerous position” that torture is a legitimate method of interrogation. The petition calls on Gonzales to “reaffirm American respect for human dignity and the rule of law.”
The administration is feeling so much heat on the subject that they posted, unannounced, on a U.S. government website, a new policy repudiating the earlier memos and calling torture “abhorrent both to American law and values and to international norms.”
On the eve of his confirmation hearings, Gonzales appeared to be covering his previous actions by releasing a prepared statement saying he would abide by international treaties prohibiting torture of prisoners. His Senate testimony was obtained by The Associated Press.
*Note from the Editor: May 22, 2004 is the correct date of the FBI e-mail. The print article ran with the erroneous date December 2003. We apologize for the error.