Torture, the incumbents and the 2008 presidential election.
On Monday, February 11, 2008, the military announced that six death penalty trials would go forward in Guantánamo Bay.
The media focused primarily on the wisdom of capital punishment under such circumstances: Does it not play into the hands of the alleged mastermind of 9/11 to initiate a drawn out execution process for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), when he wants to be martyred? Should the US alienate its close allies in Europe by injecting the death penalty debate into the ‘War on Terror’?
Yet the real issue was, Why now? Within two months, the Supreme Court seems likely to rule that the military commissions process by which these prisoners will be judged is unconstitutional. Why not await the guidance of this imminent decision?
The answer had already been provided by Colonel Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor in the military commissions. He recently resigned rather than continue to take part in the commissions, levelling three charges against the process he had help to lead.
Davis’ first allegation is the most pervasive: that the process had become irrevocably driven by politics. Decisions are not being made based on considerations of justice, but to foster the fortunes of the Republican Party. And so it has proved. By announcing these capital prosecutions, President Bush played the first of several “terror cards” we can expect to see on the table in this election year. The Administration’s press conference, led by Brigadier General Thomas Hartmann, trumpeted the 9/11 victims’ expedited right to their pound of KSM’s flesh. No mention was made, of course, why these victims’ rights had been less urgent during the previous five years, which KSM spent shuffling between CIA black sites.
Ensuring that the charges were laid against these “high value” prisoners before the Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of the commissions was equally cynical. If the Court does strike down the current process in March or April, as seems probable, this will provide the opportunity for another Republican press conference, focused on the need to rein in the ‘liberal’ Court for espousing a “KSM Bill of Rights” for the mastermind of 9/11. There will be no mention, of course, of the fact that the majority opinion will likely be written by Justice Kennedy, a Republican conservative appointee.
The third Republican vote-scoring press conference will come in April, with the introduction of a replacement process for the trial of the Guantánamo prisoners, almost as regressive than the last. This time those -- like Senator Barack Hussein Obama -- who dare to challenge the proposal will be tarred as advocates of terrorism. It remains to be seen whether Senator Hillary Clinton can muster the courage to vote against the Bush proposal.
It is equally clear that no trial will actually take place before the November elections. Complaining about delay is one matter, but in reality a speedy trial would be very inconvenient, as it would bring to the fore Col. Davis’ second and third objections to the process: that important parts of the trials would be held in secret, and that torture evidence would be used.
General Hartmann robustly assured the watching world at his press conference that the military trials would include no evidence (not one shred!) withheld from the accused. This statement is technically correct, but it obscures a more important truth: KSM already knows how he was tortured. It is the outside world that has yet to hear the horrors of his treatment.
And the world will not get to hear the whole story about that, certainly not before the election. Torture evidence indubitably will be used in these tribunals, but details of the “methods of interrogation” used on Mohammed are (and will remain) classified. I am about to leave on my twentieth trip to Guantánamo, and the censorship rules have recently been made much more rigorous, especially in the cases of the 14 ‘High Value Detainees’ such as KSM.
The Republican political symbol is the Elephant; the Democrat symbol is (incomprehensibly) the Donkey, less well known for its prodigious memory. Those who think the November election is already won need to remember that the Republican party is famous for its focus on just one goal: the election of Republicans.
Although he has never been a favourite of the party, Senator John McCain will be the Republican beneficiary of all these shenanigans. Optimists hold out hope that as a victim of torture in Vietnam himself he will set the Republicans on a bold new path towards due process. Yet the pockets of common sense in his political platform sit uneasily beside McCain’s unwavering support both for the war in Iraq and swathes of misguided Bush policies.