As religious leaders in Connecticut we are deeply concerned, indeed horrified, that Congress is poised to legalize torture. Earlier this week, at a press conference at Hartford Seminary, we spoke in one voice to say emphatically: No torture anywhere anytime–no exceptions. We joined our voices with those of national religious leaders in the National Religious Campaign Against Torture who published an advertisement signed by national figures in Washington’s Roll Call on the same day.
We are compelled to speak again because the just-announced Republican “compromise” threatens to compromise the rule of law and the laws of God. Torture is a moral and legal issue; it is also a profoundly religious issue, for it degrades the image of God in the tortured and the torturer alike. Our moral compass is swinging wildly. To tolerate, or worse decriminalize, torture jeopardizes the soul of our nation.
If we were not to raise our voices in outrage at this time, the very stones would cry out.
What is the basis of our concern?
§ We are concerned that the proposed legislation eviscerates the War Crimes Act of 1996. That act makes it a crime for any American to commit “grave violations” of the Geneva Conventions. But the “compromise” just announced amends the War Crimes Act to under cut that and to give the President unilateral authority–unchecked by Congress or the courts–to declare what is a violation of the War Crimes Act.
The President would then have the power to decriminalize the very prisoner abuse–at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and secret prisons around the world–that rightly has caused American shame and international outrage. Under the legislation now proposed, even the list of permissible forms of interrogation will be kept secret. When reporters asked National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley whether waterboarding was permitted under the agreement, he refused even to answer the question.
§ We are concerned that the proposed law retroactively decriminalizes violations of the War Crimes Act. This sends a message that our country is offering one hundred percent tolerance for torture. We insist on zero tolerance for torture. But the bill extends tolerance to mercenaries and top government officials. This is highly self-serving. As former CIA general counsel, Jeffrey H. Smith, recently told the Washington Post regarding accusations of illegal activities by CIA officials, “The fault here is with more senior people who authorized interrogation techniques that amount to torture” and should now be liable, instead of “the officers who carried it out.” This legislation would provide such senior officials a “get out of jail free” card.
§ We are concerned that this legislation removes the right of habeas corpus for those held as illegal combatants. This overturns the Supreme Court’s Rasul decision and strips the courts of their ability to prevent torture and abuse. Habeas corpus cases have been the sole means for challenging the abuse of those held at Guantánamo.