The “war on terrorism” is in trouble, and at the very moment the Bush Administration needs it most–election season. George W. Bush has decided to stake his campaign on his ability to protect us. But this strategy may well fail, as with each passing day we learn of another reason to doubt the Administration’s ability to keep us secure.
Take the Justice Department’s recent revelations about José Padilla, the US citizen it has held as an “enemy combatant,” without charges or trial, for two years. When Padilla was first locked up, the Administration provided only the sketchiest details. But after the Supreme Court displayed skepticism about the government’s position, the Administration chose to disclose new information to show that Padilla really is a “bad guy.” Deputy Attorney General James Comey insisted that the timing–one month before the Supreme Court is to rule–was mere coincidence.
But leaving aside the fact that we’ve never been able to hear Padilla’s side of the story, everything the government disclosed about his alleged activities, Comey admitted, would be inadmissible in court. That’s because it’s all the result of coerced confessions, which are notoriously unreliable. Some information was obtained through a two-year incommunicado interrogation of Padilla, designed, by the government’s own admission, to coerce him into talking by rendering him without hope and wholly dependent on his captors. The rest comes from Al Qaeda figures held in undisclosed CIA locations, where interrogators, among other tactics, reportedly push suspects under water until they think they’re drowning in order to encourage cooperation.
On June 7 and 8, the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post disclosed the existence of two legal memos from the Defense and Justice departments arguing that the President is not subject to the international and federal bans on torture whenever he acts “pursuant to his commander-in-chief authority” and that military officials are also immune from prosecution if they believe they are following orders. In this view, the President is bound by no law. He can make up the rules as he goes along and then simply find an eager lawyer to write a secret memo justifying his actions. The Defense Department memo has now been leaked, but Attorney General Ashcroft refused to disclose even to Congress the memo from his agency.
The Administration has sought to downplay the memos as mere think-pieces not necessarily acted upon. But the whole world has now seen evidence that the thoughts were translated into action. The Administration appears to have made a calculated decision that physical coercion and humiliation were warranted in order to get “actionable intelligence” from its detainees. Abu Ghraib was the result. Yet according to military officials interviewed by the New York Times, the interrogations at Abu Ghraib “yielded very little valuable intelligence.”
Meanwhile, at home and abroad, the detention of people having no connection to terrorism has become routine. The Justice Department recently admitted that it had erroneously locked up an American lawyer of Muslim faith, Brandon Mayfield, as a “material witness.” It did so on the basis of a fingerprint match to the Madrid bombing site that the FBI characterized as a “100 percent identification” until it conceded, two weeks after Mayfield had been detained, that it was a 100 percent mistake.
And Mayfield is not alone. Of the more than 5,000 foreign nationals jailed in the United States since September 11 in anti-terrorism “preventive-detention” measures, only three have been charged with any terrorist crime. Two of the three were acquitted at trial of the terrorist charges. And the lone conviction is under a legal cloud because the prosecution failed to turn over to the defense evidence that its principal witness lied on the stand. Our record is not much better overseas. Military intelligence officers told the Red Cross that 70 to 90 percent of the people locked up in Iraq had been arrested by mistake.
The justification for these and other shortcuts on human rights is always that they are necessary to make us more secure. But even on those terms, there is little tangible evidence that the detentions, the coercion or the torture has made us safer. On the contrary, there is every reason to believe that they have made us less safe, by inspiring the unprecedented level of anti-Americanism so evident around the world. That anti-Americanism is the greatest threat to our national security. For that we have George W. Bush to thank.