Sunday, January 16, 2011

Benjamin Wittes' Prefers "Civility" over Law, English Language

Glenn Greenwald wrote this week about Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution, quoting Wittes as calling the Obama Administration’s decision not to investigate the Bush Administration for approving torture “one of the more courageous things ... it has done.”

That’s a common sentiment, but Wittes goes further, claiming that “there has actually been a great deal of accountability for past detention policy -- the disclosure of internal memos, for example.”

Imagine making that argument in court, after your client was convicted of, oh, say obstructing justice for destroying the videotapes that documented Khalid Sheikh Mohammed being waterboarded 183 times in March 2003.

Or imagine that your client was convicted of simply waterboarding KSM one of these 183 times, as occurred during the Reagan Administration, when the DOJ prosecuted, and convicted, a Texas Sheriff, and his deputies (whose “only following orders” defense was unpersuasive to the jury) for waterboarding suspects.

Imagine beginning your sentencing argument, “Your Honor, a lenient sentence is in order here because ‘there has actually been a great deal of accountability’ because of ‘the disclosure of internal memos.’” The judge put your client in prison, a place which, to Wittes, “has only the most limited role in transitions of power in a democracy,” (More on this later) after laughing out loud.

But Wittes continues, with a straight face, stating that “What [Human Rights First] calls “accountability for torture” is, in my book, the criminalization of policy differences–nothing more or less.” Wow. Let that sink in for a second. He first disputes use of the word torture by HRF (ignoring Gen. Taguba’s conclusion that “"there is no longer any doubt that the current administration committed war crimes") and substitutes his own term of it, “policy differences.”

Imagine stating that in your sentencing argument, or your jury argument for that matter, “Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, my client didn’t torture KSM when he simulated drowning 183 times in a month, he just had a “policy difference with U.S., International law, and the Geneva Conventions.”

What becomes crystal clear is that Wittes believes strongly in Equal Protection, as long as some people are “more equal than others.” If you’re a sheriff in Texas, the law applies, but if you’re one of the people, like Dick Cheney, who approved of “enhanced interrogation techniques” enforcing existing law is “criminaliz[ing] policy differences.”

The point here is not to attack Dick Cheney as the decision to not prosecute him, and others, would clearly have implicated people on both sides of the aisle and perhaps stretched to members of the Obama Administration, who have been praised for breaking campaign promises and continuing Bush Administration “detention” policies. In fact, even Michael Hayden, head of NSA during the Bush Administration, praised Obama’s similar policies, describing that “[y]ou've got state secrets, targeted killings, indefinite detention, renditions, the opposition to extending the right of habeas corpus to prisoners at Bagram.”

Instead, the point is that to people like Wittes, the law is for people like you and me, who would, if we were convicted, have to deal with harsh sentencing guidelines and the most incarceration-oriented criminal justice system in existence, a system that was clearly created on a bipartisan basis. What an American general calls a “war crime” isn’t anything for us to worry our pretty little heads over; it’s just a simple “policy difference.” Torture of not only human beings, but also language.

But the most disgusting part of Wittes’ argument is his praise for the Obama Administration key position, which Wittes “believe[s] correct,” not to “do violence to the two-century-old tradition in American life of incoming presidents’ not prosecuting outgoing ones.”

Notice that rhetorical trick? The word “violence,” which carries a negative connotation, isn’t used to describe waterboarding a person more than 3 times a day for a month, (or to destroy the evidence of it) or to describe the more than 100 prisoners who died in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001 and 2006.

Instead it’s cleverly employed to describe what Obama would have been doing if he had fulfilled his campaign promise to investigate and prosecute people who committed war crimes during our “War on Terror.” Thus, it is not “violent” to securely bind a person’s feet, elevate them and bind him securely “to an inclined bench, approximately four feet by seven feet.[to place a cloth] over the forehead and eyes, [and then apply water] to the cloth in a controlled manner [to produce] the perception of 'suffocation and incipient panic'."

But to prosecute someone who performed this, or ordered it, that would be to “do violence.” Doublespeak at its finest.

With this double standard and clear doublespeak in mind, consider how Wittes would confront the “policy differences” he would have with someone like Julian Assange. Writing, in another post, about the problem in holding someone like Assange, an Australian citizen, accountable under U.S. law, issue, Wittes openly admits to a belief in hypocrisy:

If Congress can make such a demand on Assange, the U.S. would be in a bad position to object if the Congress of People’s Deputies made a similar demand on the Washington Post. I actively want more Chinese secrets revealed against the will of the Chinese government. Indeed, were Wikileaks spending more of its time undermining authoritarianism and less of its time undermining democracies, I might admire it. And I would find outrageous efforts by foreign governments to require American news outlets to keep their secrets for them. I’m not against double standards in all circumstances, so it’s possible that the right answer here is hypocrisy: Doing what we need to do and objecting when other countries do the same. But I agree with Tom that the situation would be very awkward.

“Awkward?” Seriously? I don’t think that’s how foreign governments, or people like Assange (who last week raised, as a defense against extradition, his fear of extrajudicial detention by the U.S.) would describe a law is an admitted double standard, do you? “Very sorry to disturb you, Sir, but your blatant hypocrisy in detaining me indefinitely for doing something you routinely do and condone is making me feel, well, awkward.”

Getting past the “awkwardness” Wittes acknowledges, he at least admits the problem inherent in holding Assange accountable under American law for what the press in the U.S. routinely does by disclosing classified material given to them by third parties. He writes that he is “tentatively persuaded that some jurisdictional limitation is probably appropriate” and goes on to state that he “suspect[s]” that such a limit on U.S. law would “probably get Assange off the hook.”

So, to recap, Wittes believes:

1. The Obama Administration’s decision not to investigate what U.S. General Taguba called “war crimes” on our part is “one of the more courageous things ... it has done.”
2. The Obama Administration’s disclosure of internal memos composed during the Bush Administration describing torture is “a great deal of accountability for past detention policy.”
3. There was no need for this “accountability” anyway since “‘accountability for torture’ is... the criminalization of policy differences–nothing more or less.” “
4. Obama rightfully decided that waterboarding someone 183 times in a month and destroying evidence of this was not worthy of prosecution and, if he had done so, he would have done violence to tradition.
5. Wittes is “not against double standards” and the “right answer” is possibly “hypocrisy,” even though this could be “awkward.”

All of which leads to Wittes’ belief in the best way of dealing with Julian Assange, who might object to the “awkwardness” of indefinite detention for violating U.S. law, which even Wittes admits “probably” doesn’t apply to him. Wittes writes:

[T]hat sex crimes case in Sweden is looking better and better as way of neutralizing Assange.

Got that? As if the cries to simply assassinate Assange (by numerous U.S. officials and future Presidential candidates) weren’t enough, Wittes openly acknowledges how convenient it would be for the most powerful nation on the earth, (with vast resources, available hypocrisy, immunity from war crimes prosecutions, and against whom the disclosure of internal memos brings “great... accountability”) if Julian Assange were neutralized due to a “sex crimes” prosecution.

We need a well-functioning judicial system to protect the public from people who break the law and also to protect those accused of violating it from wrongful conviction or punishment. But what should also be clear, but often isn’t, is the need to also protect people like Julian Assange from those who would use the criminal law to “neutralize” him, people like Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution.

In fact, have you ever seen a clearer example of someone who does not believe in the Equal Protection clause? Or, for that matter, the meaning of words such as “courage,” “accountability,” “torture,” “violence,” or even “awkward?”

Jefferson “consider[ed] trial by jury as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its Constitution.” Wittes shows the importance of such a right for people like Assange (or you and me) as well as how easily, and cavalierly, the government- or the think tanks that support it, no matter which party is in power- can stray, claim immunity from, or simply disregard, the principles of its Constitution.

Wittes' response to Greenwald, however, reaches a new low, accusing Greenwald of a "simple-mindedness with respect to wrenchingly difficult questions and a very ugly eagerness to attack honorable people in government, in the press, and in public life more generally who are trying to do their jobs or to express views that differ from his."

You see, when you take issue with those who take Gen. Taguba's conclusion that "war crimes" were committed in our names seriously, you should be civil about it to avoid "awkwardness," I guess.

The man who, very civilly, mind you, calls Obama's decision not to investigate the "interrogation policy" (or what Gen. Taguba called "war crimes") of the past administration "courageous," who equates "accountability" with memo disclosure, and waterboarding with "policy differences," who isn't afraid to employ "double standards” or "hypocrisy," despite its awkwardness, you must comply with one request when you visit his blog, lest you lapse into an attack on the "honorable people," like Wittes, who hold such beliefs:

We have no purity tests here–just a preference for civility and decency.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wish you were in Eric Holder's office.