Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The real "don't ask, don't tell"

George W. Bush was not fully briefed on the torture that the CIA was employing on select prisoners.
The emails, memos, reports and other documents examined by the Senate committee collectively portray a White House that approved the brutal questioning of suspects but was kept in the dark about aspects of the program, including whether it really worked.
At one point the CIA, through Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, asked Bush for permission to use "harsh techniques on Abu Zubaydah".
When Mr. Bush asked what kind of techniques, Mr. Gonzales replied, according to the book, “Mr. President, I think for your own protection, you don’t need to know the details of what’s going on here.” Mr. Bush agreed, saying: “All right. Just make sure that these things are lawful.”
I can see the CIA, and his senior staff, tacitly agreeing to keep Bush in the dark on some matters. What the above remark, quoted in 500 Days by Kurt Eichenwald, makes clear is that Bush was willing to be kept in the dark.

"Don't ask, don't tell" wasn't just a military policy, it seems.

Was this a resopnsible attitude on Bush's part? Is it ever a responsible attitude on any President's part?

My first instinct is to say no. I agree with Harry Truman that the buck stops at the President's desk. If I were the big man, I'd feel responsible for everything my administration did, so I would insist on knowing what my people were doing.

The counterargument, hinted at in Gonzales' ominous "for your protection", is that sometimes dirty work needs to be done but the boss shouldn't suffer for it. The feeling seems to be that the country will like the sausage but would rebel if it knew how the sausage was made.

As a cautious person I sympathize with the counterargument, but I think it misses the bigger picture. Who are we, if on the one hand we claim the moral high ground, but on the other, we torture people in ways that we insisted were war crimes when perpetrated by the Japanese in World War II? In fact, wouldn't we consider them war crimes if they were used against U.S. troops or civilians today?

Can the ends always justify the means? I'm not sure they can. We have to assume risk if we're to abide by our principles, or those principles mean nothing. And those principles aren't just ideals toward which we strive: they're the very essence of the soft power that makes other nations want to be on good terms with us. Without that soft power, the U.S. would be nothing more than another thuggish country throwing its military weight around. Much of the world already thinks that's what we have become.

That's not how I want others to think of us. That's not what I want my country to be.

That's why torture is wrong. That's why its defenders are wrong. That's why acknowledging our wrongdoing is essential. And that's why Bush's willful ignorance on the subject must be publicly declared an abrogation of his duty as President.

We have to reclaim our national soul.

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